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Saving Sweet Briar (At Least Temporarily)

When Sweet Briar, a small women’s college in central Virginia, abruptly announced it was closing in March, students and alumnae fought back against the decision. Last week, the alumnae association formed to save the school (aptly called “Save Sweet Briar”) won the battle to keep the school open, at least temporarily, and now they'll have an assist from a former Bridgewater College president. WMRA’s Kara Lofton reports.

In March, the Sweet Briar administration closed the 114-year-old school citing insurmountable financial challenges. They said they wanted to let Sweet Briar close in dignity rather than eking out a limping existence for its last years. But former board member Christine Bouleware, (who left the Sweet Briar board in June of 2014 citing difference of opinion) said there were financial challenges, but they were certainly fixable given the right management.

CHRISTINE BOULEWARE: For the last two years we have not had a director of admissions… on top of which we did not maintain the relationships with the feeder schools that traditionally referred schools to us.

She also said that for the last few years, 100% of Sweet Briar students received some form of financial aid, regardless of need. When she was on the board, Bouleware assumed the money was coming from a scholarship fund. She later learned the money was actually being pulled from the endowment.

BOULEWARE: It wasn’t based on need or anything like that.  It was just a practice that, for some reason, the admissions office chose to employ. So therefore, if you have 100% [of students] on either financial discount or financial aid you are not receiving the full value of the tuition so that is going to force us to draw down more on our endowment then we had planned.

Bouleware is currently on the “Save Sweet Briar” board, an alumna association that was formed following the March announcement. The group has managed to raise $21 million in the past three months, 12 million of which will go toward the school’s operating costs for the coming year.

The association also pushed the matter of the school’s closing before the Virginia Supreme Court. On June 20th, a judge approved an agreement, fostered by Attorney General Mark Herring, to keep the school open for the coming year. The deal includes changes in leadership and overhaul of the current board and will rely heavily on the money “Save Sweet Briar” raised to fund the coming year. These measures are really just a stopgap, though, for an institution that now has to scramble to find both students and faculty for a term that begins in less than two months.

Teresa Tomlinson, mayor of Columbus, Georgia and Sweet Briar’s commencement speaker for the 2015 graduation, is optimistic about the future of the school, though.

She said the first day the deal was approved they had more than 100 students inquire as prospective students or wanting to return to the school for the coming year.

TERESA TOMLINSON: I think that the tragedy of this proposed closing and the Herculean efforts to turn it around has given us national exposure and name recognition that we did not have a year ago. And so I think that is something that through this unfortunate circumstance has come to be in our favor.

Phil Stone, the former Bridgewater College president who will step into the Sweet Briar role next week, agrees.

PHIL STONE: Out of curiosity a lot of folks are looking at Sweet Briar who were not already looking at it, including some prospective students, so part of what we will be saying to them, almost as a marketing effort, is to say, ‘you see now what Sweet Briar women can do, would you like to become one?’ So we think that’s pretty effective in light of what they accomplished. 

Stone, an attorney, served as Bridgewater’s president for 16 years and shares a law practice in Harrisonburg with his children. The fact that he has already started, and finished, several successful careers at this point in his life may be one of the characteristics that make him ideal for the job. He said he’s doing it because he believes in small, liberal arts education, not because he was looking for work. Once the school is on its feet, he will happily pass the reigns to someone else.

STONE: My job is to get it stabilized and make the transition to strength so that we can start recruiting another president. I do not have a contract. I have no idea what I’ll be paid, we haven’t discussed it; I usually do things on the basis of whether I feel some impulsion or urge or calling to do something and that’s the way I feel here. That if I have some experiences and some skills that might make it possible for Sweet Briar to survive, that’s why I stepped forward.

It’s a theme that ran through all three conversations: the alumnae, students, and community members that are stepping forward to save the school are doing so not because they “get” something out of it, but because they deeply, passionately believe in the school itself and what it stands for.

Kara Lofton is a photojournalist based in Harrisonburg, VA. She is a 2014 graduate of Eastern Mennonite University and has been published by EMU, Sojourners Magazine, and The Mennonite. Her reporting for WMRA is her radio debut.