An inspiring group of Sweet Briar women are doing everything they can to save their school

In the year 2015, do all-women’s colleges have a reason to exist? A group of pretty badass alumnae from the likely-soon-to-be closed Sweet Briar College have answered this with a resounding HECK YEAH by raising over $3 million (in less than a month!) to keep their alma mater open.

The Sweet Briar College board announced in early March that this spring would be the school’s last semester. This leaves hundreds of students rushing to secure spots at other institutions for the fall and over 70 faculty members looking at imminent unemployment.

Sweet Briar’s reasons for closing are muddled. The board claims empty coffers, but an initial outside investigation says the college’s financial woes are not so dire as to require immediate closure — in fact they may even be in decent shape. Complicating matters further, a piece in the New York Times this weekend indicated that the school is $25 million in debt and has $28 million in deferred maintenance. The school’s interim president, James F. Jones Jr. told the paper that the school would need an endowment of $250 million to survive. Additionally, enrollment is undeniably down. So is closing the school a smart move to precipitate an inevitable end — or did the board just jump a seaworthy ship?

The women of the college are not taking the news of shuttering doors without putting up a fight. Enter Saving Sweet Briar, the alumnae organization put together to do just what their name implies — save the college that means so much to its current and former students. The faculty has also come out in support of the campaign, voting unanimously to oppose the closing.

Saving Sweet Briar is hard at work to ensure that professors and students can stay on campus: they have hired a lawyer to look over the college’s finances, the organization is in the process of becoming a certified non-profit, and they are steadily working towards their goal of raising $20 million. And the plot thickens: The organization’s board of directors includes two alumnae who, until last year, were members of the college’s board — the people who just announced the closure. What does Sweet Briar Interim President Jones have to say about all this? Well, nothing optimistic: “I’m surprised that people, I think, with a good sense of the data, could come to the conclusion that there is a way on this earth to save this dear old school, but I do not think there is.” He is also quoted in the Times with a few words that leave little room for interpretation, “the school is going to close.” 

While some may see an all-women’s college as a relic of the past, alumna Julia Patt is confident that many women could benefit from the single-sex education system. She wrote in an op-ed, “As long as misogyny and violence against women exist in our society, open environments like women’s colleges remain, and indeed achieve new ways to be, relevant.” The Women’s College Coalition — and their thorough research — would agree: “Graduating from a women’s college, versus a co-ed public college or university, significantly increases a woman’s chances of earning a graduate degree. Women’s college graduates succeed in entering a range of career fields and graduate programs, regardless of their undergraduate major.”

On top of that, the study cites that 90% of women’s college alumnae report that the financial investment was worthwhile and that they consider the skills they learned at college to be extremely important. The coalition’s interim president, Marilyn Hammond, stresses that Sweet Briar’s closure may not say anything about the future of single-sex education: “Higher education is a difficult business to be in whether you’re public or private, women’s or coed.” Sweet Briar, as a small liberal arts college in rural Virginia, may have multiple odds stacked against it.

Looking at Saving Sweet Briar’s website, the group is filled with an incredibly inspiring spirit. Just this past week, almost 800 alumnae gathered on campus to welcome home the current students from spring break. The real question, of course, is whether that spirit can pay the bills to keep the future sweet for many more Briar women to come.

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