Dear Commons Community,
Here at bucolic Sweet Briar College, equestrians awaken at dawn and trek to the stables to ride on 18 miles of trails through wooded countryside, fields and dells. Women study on the boathouse dock at sunset, as geese squawk over a lake. Pearls are still in fashion, and men must have escorts. Students call it “the pink bubble.”
Now, all of a sudden, the bubble has burst due to the abrupt decision by the Sweet Briar board to close the 114-year-old women’s liberal arts school enrolling 700 students at the end of this term “as a result of insurmountable financial challenges” .
The Board’s decision has transformed this tranquil community into a hotbed of anger and activism. A new alumnae group, Saving Sweet Briar, has raised $3 million and intends to demand this week that the school make its finances public — or face legal action. The faculty voted unanimously last week to oppose the “unilateral decision” to close the school, and demanded to meet with the board. Students, fresh from spring break, plastered their cars with a rallying cry — #SaveSweetBriar — in the school colors, pink and green.
“The drama at Sweet Briar — a tiny school, with just 532 students on a sprawling 3,250-acre campus, and another 170 or so studying overseas — is playing out against a backdrop of wrenching changes for small liberal arts schools, especially those in rural areas, and women’s colleges, which face particular challenges in recruiting.
A survey this year by Inside Higher Ed, conducted by the Gallup Organization, found that just 39 percent of college presidents felt confident that their institution’s financial model would be sustainable for the next decade. In Virginia alone, two other small colleges have closed since 2013 — Virginia Intermont College in Bristol, and St. Paul’s College, a historically black institution in Lawrenceville.
Fifty years ago, there were 230 women’s colleges in the United States, according to the Women’s College Coalition, a nonprofit group. Last year, there were 46. But Chatham University in Pittsburgh is set to admit men this fall, dropping the number to 45. Without Sweet Briar, there will be 44.”
The plight of women’s colleges has been going for several decades. Many of these colleges began admitting men as early as the 1970s, others simply closed due to decreased enrollments and financial difficulties.