Sweet Briar officially closes at end of year

Liz Levey, ‘Doah Staff Writer
March 18, 2015

Sadness gave way to determination on Mar. 4 as fiercely loyal Sweet Briar College students and alumnae vowed to keep their small private women’s college open. The resolve followed the announcement that the Class of 2015 would be the final graduating class at the 114-year-old college in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

On Feb. 28, 2015, the board of directors of Sweet Briar College voted to close the college as a result of insurmountable financial challenges. “This is a sad day for the entire Sweet Briar College community,” said Paul G. Rice, SBC Board Chair. “The board closely examined the college’s financial situation and weighed it against our obligations to current and prospective students, parents, faculty and staff, alumnae, donors and friends. We voted to act now to cease academic operations responsibly, allowing us to place students at other academic institutions, to assist faculty and staff with the transition and to conduct a more orderly winding down of academic operations.”

Efforts begin immediately to help current students transfer to other colleges and universities. Additionally, following their spring break, which ends Sunday, Mar. 15, the college will host on-campus college fairs to help match current students with transfer opportunities. The college will offer to students who have been admitted to Sweet Briar for fall 2015 assistance in finding a new academic institution.

The college will be winding down academic operations over the next several months. The Class of 2015 will be the final graduating class, and the commencement ceremony on May 16 will be the last one held on campus. A final on-campus Reunion Weekend will take place May 29-31, 2015. The college will close on Aug. 25, 2015, in order to allow for the completion of summer credit hours.

“While the college has long been part of my life, as my wife is a 1969 graduate, my role as president has taken on more meaning than I could ever describe,” President James F. Jones Jr. said. “The board, some key alumnae and I have worked diligently to find a solution to the challenges Sweet Briar faces. This work led us to the unfortunate conclusion that there are two key realities that we could not change: the declining number of students choosing to attend small, rural, private liberal arts colleges and even fewer young women willing to consider a single-sex education, and the increase in the tuition discount rate that we have to extend to enroll each new class is financially unsustainable.”

In Mar. 2014, the college began a strategic planning initiative to examine opportunities for Sweet Briar to attract and retain a larger number of qualified students and determine if any fundraising possibilities might exist to support these opportunities. Unfortunately, the planning initiative did not yield any viable paths forward because of financial constraints.

Fifty years ago, there were 230 women’s colleges in the United States, according to the Women’s College Coalition. Now, after decades of shutdowns, mergers and coed conversions, there are little more than 40. Some women’s colleges remain among the most durable brands in higher education, including Smith, Wellesley, Barnard, Bryn Mawr and historically black Spelman. But others, like Sweet Briar, have faced an increasing financial squeeze and have scrambled to attract new students.

In an email sent out by President Tracy Fitzsimmons to all of Shenandoah University, she asked all to keep Sweet Briar in everyone’s thoughts. “If you personally know someone in the Sweet Briar community, please reach out to them and support them in any way you can. I hope you will keep the faculty, staff, alumnae, Board of Directors – and especially the students – of Sweet Briar in your thoughts as they move through this very difficult time.” Shenandoah in part will help those that are looking for new academic homes.

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