A week after Sweet Briar’s board of directors announced plans to close the 114-year-old women’s college in Amherst, shock and grief among students, faculty and alumnae has given way to anger, defiance and questions about the basis for the decision.
“I just think it was handled so badly,” said Sweet Briar biology professor Lincoln Brower, one of the world’s leading experts on the monarch butterfly. Brower, whose wife is also a professor at the school, said that while he and his colleagues were aware that the school was struggling financially, no one knew they were at the edge of a precipice.
“If the faculty had known it was as serious as it has turned out to be, there would have been a major effort from faculty, students and alumnae to come up with funding,” he said. “There was no opportunity to respond to this catastrophic statement by the board of trustees.”
The school has placed the blame for the decision on shrinking enrollment and fewer applicants interested in an all-women’s school in a rural setting, noting in statements to media that only $20 million of the more than $80 million endowment is in unrestricted funds, and that the college had projected an operational deficit of $2 million for the year. The administration had not responded to C-VILLE’s request for comment at press time.
Sweet Briar alum Tyesha West, who attended Charlottesville High School and graduated from the college in 2014, said she was stunned when she heard the news.
“I’ve been involved with the alumnae association since freshman year,” she said, describing sitting in on board meetings and coordinating meetings between alums and current and prospective students. “I never once heard anyone say to the board or anyone else that if you don’t give your best gift now, then the college will close,” she said.
Alumnae response has been swift since the Tuesday, March 3, announcement, with the formation of the nonprofit Saving Sweet Briar, which has set a goal of raising $20 million and, according to a statement on the site, is “mounting a multi-pronged effort to stop the closure of Sweet Briar College.” At press time, the group had raised close to $2.5 million and had also retained the international law firm of Troutman Sanders with the intention of overturning the decision.
The outpouring of support, which includes a social media campaign using the hashtag #SaveSweetBriar, is encouraging to current students, several of whom described being blindsided by the suddenly called assembly in the school’s Babcock Auditorium, where Interim President James Jones, who took the post in August, told the gathered students that the spring 2015 semester would be the school’s last.
“The entire auditorium gasped and broke into horrible sobs. It was awful,” said Sweet Briar freshman Jules Sudol, who graduated from Monticello High School last year and chose the women’s college because of its proximity to home, its bucolic 3,250-acre campus, tight-knit community and nationally recognized equestrian program. “It was like I was told I could never go home again. It’s a horrible, heartbreaking feeling.”
Both Sudol and Kat Perry, an Albemarle High School grad who is now a freshman at Sweet Briar, say they are inspired by the Save Sweet Briar movement and believe there’s a chance it can succeed, even as they acknowledge they must be practical and consider where they’ll be next fall if the effort fails.
“We’re hopeful and ready to continue fighting until we get what we need,” said Perry.