Be careful what you wish for.
Sentiment runs deep and wide at small liberal arts colleges. Based in strong traditions and historic, familial relationships between alumni and these schools, alumni organizations feature prominently in and contribute significantly to the life of such institutions.
Indeed, a tireless group of alumni have kept Sweet Briar from closing. Stories of the Sweet Briar Miracle emphasize the desires of alumni, those who graduated long ago, and who feel emotionally responsible for the institution, to keep the doors open.
My question is this: can sentiment and a kind of wishful thinking provide what Sweet Briar needs as an institution of higher learning? The school faces very serious challenges. It is a tiny, women's college in a rural setting with declining enrollment and an untenable discount rate. It is steeped in a tradition and locked into a location that makes changes that attract students these days very difficult. Faculty ranks are diminished, threatening program offerings, and assuring increased workload for those who stayed. Fund raising has produced impressive, but largely unrealized, financial support. Many students have selected to go elsewhere this fall.
It's likely to get worse before it gets better. The new president, Phillip C. Stone, faces a year of difficult decisions, many of which, unavoidably, will produce further unhappiness and disappointment as programs will inevitably be closed, positions eliminated. Academic challenges ahead do not promise easy answers. And will take time.
While the decision to close was handled poorly and in a manner deeply insensitive to groups associated with Sweet Briar, it's important to note that nostalgia seems to be driving the decision to remain open. And while nostalgia is no substitute for academic, fiduciary, or management expertise, that devotion to a remembered past will follow Stone, cast its shadow on every decision.
The important question in the end: what is the value, to students, to the larger world of higher education, of keeping Sweet Briar open? If the president can both provide and articulate a compelling answer, he will be well along to not only saving Sweet Briar, but to preserving the tradition so beloved of his alumni. No small task, or legacy.
(Article changed on June 23, 2015 at 11:31)