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Sweet Briar to close shop

by Katherine King

“My initial reaction was like complete freakout,” Thais Henriques ’17 said. “Oh my god, I didn’t apply for an alternate program; what am I going to do? Am I going to be able to go to France?” Henriques had been planning on attending Sweet Briar College’s Junior Year in France (JYF) program in fall 2015. Sweet Briar, a women’s college in Virginia, announced on March 3 that it would be closing after the current academic year due to financial troubles. Luckily for Henriques, the leadership of the JYF program is merely switching hands to Hollins University. However, the path forward for Sweet Briar students will not be so simple.

Willa Sachs ’16 is currently in Paris on the JYF program. She has “found the program to be generally well-organized” and her only complaint is that she did not know whom she would be staying with or where she would be staying before she arrived in Paris, she wrote in an email to the Collegian. Sachs said the imminent closure of the school has not affected the JYF program. Her “classes, excursions and other activities in the program continue as usual,” and the closure is rarely discussed because few of the students on the program are from Sweet Briar. Sachs was surprised by the closure of the school. “I had no clue that Sweet Briar would be closing — I had not even heard the faintest suggestion that it was going to happen,” she wrote.

Sachs’s experience mirrors that of current students at Sweet Briar. Students, parents, alumnae and professors expressed shock in reaction to the announcement of their college’s closure. Current Sweet Briar students must scramble to find a new college for next year. President Sean Decatur, who taught for 13 years at Mount Holyoke College, a women’s college in Massachusetts, said that “from an educational standpoint [he] can see a lot of value to” single-sex education. However, single-sex colleges seem to be increasingly under threat. “There is declining interest in attending same-sex institutions,” Decatur said. “I think that clearly played a role in Sweet Briar’s decline in enrollment through the course of the last few years.”

Decatur compared the challenges that Sweet Briar is facing now with challenges that Kenyon faced before it made the decision to become a co-educational institution. Decatur believes Kenyon went co-ed for primarily financial rather than ideological reasons. “In the late ’60s, early ’70s, going to an all-male institution in a rural location was not nearly as attractive as it had been a hundred years prior,” Decatur said.

However, according to Kenyon administrators, the parallels between Sweet Briar and Kenyon’s financial situations ended in the ’70s.  “I don’t think Kenyon would [face a similar problem], at least not for the foreseeable future,” Joseph Nelson, Kenyon’s vice president for finance, said. “Kenyon’s getting plenty of applications; we’re still very selective, so from a pure financial perspective, I think the College is strong.” At $206.8 million as of 2014, Kenyon’s endowment is smaller than that of many of its peer institutions. Sweet Briar’s endowment is $94 million. It is  also $24.9 million in debt.

Nelson affirms that a surprise closure would be out of the question at Kenyon. “I think we’re very transparent,” Nelson said. “We’re not unique, but we’re one of very few where the chair of the faculty sits in our executive staff meetings every week. Our budget is more or less public information.” Decatur confirmed these values: “In really all times, but especially in times of financial crisis there’s an obligation of keeping the community in the loop about what’s going on with the institution,” he said.

Some commentators have attributed Sweet Briar’s demise to a perceived national decline of the liberal arts due to rising tuition and increased demand for practical skills.  A study published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that, in 2012, 130 colleges qualified as liberal arts schools, which was down from 212 in 1990. Decatur says he’s confident in the ongoing power of the liberal arts, but that the public’s misguided perception worries him. “There’s that lingering buzz out there about the value of these types of institutions,” Decatur said.

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