Today, Sweet Briar College formally inaugurates Meredith Woo as its 13th president.
This, of course, was a day that wasn’t supposed to happen. If Sweet Briar’s board — the old board, that is — had its way, the women’s college in Amherst County would have closed in 2015 and the expansive 3,250-acre campus today would be . . . well, who knows? Not a college, that’s for sure. A determined band of alumnae had something to say about that. So did the courts — the will of the college’s founder specified the college was to be a “perpetual memorial” to her daughter. That was a key legal detail that stood in the way of the board’s attempt to close the school.
The four-month legal battle over the college in 2015 was dramatic and — in a deal brokered by Attorney General Mark Herring — resulted in the alumnae taking over the college. The school’s 11th president, James Jones, unceremoniously left town. Needing a new president in a hurry, the alumnae turned to Phillip Stone, the retired president of Bridgewater College, who showed up that July at a school that technically had zero students and only a handful of employees left. That Sweet Briar was even able to re-open as scheduled the following month is nothing short of miraculous.
Stone never intended to stay long and, as planned, Sweet Briar now has a president for the long term in Woo, a former dean at the University of Virginia. Woo’s formal installation today is a good time to revisit where Sweet Briar stands two years after its traumatic near-death experience — and its storybook resurrection.
We’ve said this before, but it bears repeating anytime the Sweet Briar saga is recounted: Sweet Briar was never in poor financial shape. It was simply poorly run. For several decades, the board burned away its endowment instead of trying to raise money. Even when the board announced the school was closing, Sweet Briar’s endowment was bigger than that of many schools its size — about twice the size of endowments at Mary Baldwin University and Ferrum College, for instance.
Here are the relevant recent facts: When Sweet Briar opened under Stone in fall 2015, the endowment stood at about $65 million. Today it’s at $73.9 million. By our math, it’s growing again.
Another relevant fact: In pre-closing days, raising $2 million a year was considered a “reach” goal for Sweet Briar. In the fiscal year that closed this summer, Sweet Briar raised more than $20 million — $14 million in gifts, and another $6.8 million in future pledges. That money was always available; previous administration simply hadn’t bothered to ask for it. The urgency to keep the school open also has inspired alumnae to contribute in a way they haven’t before.
That tenfold increase in giving would seem to be a good thing, although The Wall Street Journal recently cast it otherwise: “Donor dollars are supporting almost the entire operating budget,” the Journal warned. What the Journal didn’t say: That’s always been the plan for the next few years.
The near-closing cost Sweet Briar something more dear than dollars. It cost the school students. When Sweet Briar announced in March 2015 that it would close, the school advised its 641 full-time undergraduates to transfer elsewhere. The seniors, of course, graduated, and the rest made other plans. When Sweet Briar came back to life that fall, it was lucky to lure back 248 students. The resulting attendance deficit is something that Sweet Briar will have to deal with for years to come as those remaining students work their way through the system — and the school can get back to recruiting full incoming classes. Hence, the need for alumnae to make up for what the school is missing in tuition dollars. “We have no intention of continuing to rely on our alumnae indefinitely for operational funds,” board chair Teresa Tomlinson told The Wall Street Journal.
For the last school year, Sweet Briar started with 325 students. This year, it’s 322. Seniors, of course, graduated while 92 students came in — 79 first-year students and 13 transfers. Sweet Briar is holding steady, but it’s not growing.
That’s not necessarily a surprise. Enrollment is not like a light switch that you can flick on or off. Many students these days start looking at colleges years in advance. Sweet Briar’s lackadaisical recruiting pre-2015 — and a complete shutdown of recruiting for much of that year — will have an impact for years to come.
All that, of course, raises the question of what Sweet Briar’s enrollment should be. Stone guessed it should be about 800, which would mean Sweet Briar would have to bring in at least 200 new students each year (realistically, more, since there are inevitable drop-outs and transfers at any school). By that measure, Sweet Briar is coming up way short on enrollment.
Those figures, though, were based on the math at the time — the key math being tuition, room and board that weighed in at $50,055 per year. That’s, umm, pricey.
Woo has instituted what can only be described as sweeping changes to the college’s business model. To start with, Sweet Briar has cut tuition, room and board to $34,000. Woo is making major changes to the school’s curriculum, too, but for our purposes here, the key thing is the tuition. Lower tuition — suddenly competitive against some state colleges, such as the University of Virginia — would seem likely to bring in more students. And what Sweet Briar needs in the long run — what any college needs — is students.
Tellingly, Sweet Briar says that “Woo does not believe there is a magic number we need to reach to be sustainable. As long as we manage our budget to support current enrollment — as we are doing now — we can provide an excellent education at an affordable price.”
Here’s the big story: Sweet Briar is doing what many critics think lots of colleges should be doing — cutting administrative costs, cutting tuition and refocusing curriculum to match the modern marketplace. Woo recently told the Chronicle of Higher Education that it’s usually “very difficult to move the needle in a college setting because of inertia” but that Sweet Briar’s near closure changed everything. Now, she said, the school is “really ripe for doing something bold and fundamental.” So it is.
Sweet Briar’s story didn’t end in 2015, as the old board wanted. It also didn’t end in 2015 with a new board taking over, either. Sweet Briar will remain a fascinating story for years to come. That’s pretty inspiring to watch.