Stewardship and legacy: Sweet Briar and the future of women-only higher education

On July 7, 2014, Jo Ellen Parker bade farewell to Sweet Briar College, a women’s liberal-arts college near Lynchburg, VA that she had helmed since 2009. “I remain confident in the direction we are moving,” she wrote; “I leave knowing that Sweet Briar is poised to take another step toward an inspiring future.” 1 The college’s Board of Directors signed a soaring encomium to her tenure, situating it among the “generations of talented, dedicated, and committed women and men” who had “nurtured” and sustained” Sweet Briar, “a handful of leaders whose selfless dedication to its core values and educational mission has seen the college through the challenges of war, depression, financial constraints and social change … We who share your deep affection for Sweet Briar’s people, traditions, and values are profoundly greatful.” 2

Less than eight months later, the same board demonstrated the depth of their affection by signing the college’s death warrant. 

I.

Sweet Briar was founded in 1901 on the bequest of Indiana Fletcher Williams. Like many women’s colleges, it has faced financial difficulties in recent years; how severe is a contested and vexed question. The father of a 2007 alumna told the Washington Post that there were “no visible hints of financial distress on campus,” and recent articles on struggling colleges had not listed it. But on March 3, 2015, the president and board announced, out of the blue, that the college would close at the end of this academic year. Their failure to make serious efforts to save the college has won them a unanimous no-confidence motion from the facultymultiple demands for their resignations, protests outside the President’s house, and landed them as defendants against a lawsuit filed by the county, to say nothing of the inevitable lawsuit from the alumnæ, à la the Wilson College case. Students captured the mood in unfurling a banner over Gray Hall: Sic semper tyrannis. (“Thus always to tyrants,” the putative war cry of Brutus when assassinating Caesar and the state motto of Virginia.) Ask not for whom the bell tolls.

The administration insisted that declining enrollments and financial problems doomed the college, but that’s hard to take seriously. If admissions were the problem, why did they fail to hire a replacement Admissions Director following Gretchen Tucker’s departure in 2013? 3  If money was the problem, what are we to make of the failure to make a capital campaign, the college’s serious endowment, 4 and relatively luxurious amenities? The administration’s failure to try running the college as a more modest operation (among other options) rather than peremptorily closing it is baffling.

But it is more than that: It is scandalous, because women-only higher education (hereinafter “WOHE”) is a precious, scarce, and dwindling resource. Diminution of that resource is equivalent to destroying a grade-1 listed building or an old book. Seen from that perspective, the board and interim president James F. Jones betrayed their donors; they betrayed their applicants; they betrayed their alumnae; they betrayed their students; and above all, they betrayed the legacy that they were appointed to steward. 

Sweet Briar’s story may not be over. The county’s lawsuit will go forward even if others decline to file. (Don’t count on that; in America, anger hardens swiftly into litigation.) But whatever its fate, I must voice strong objection to one analysis of how we got here, because it has broader implications for the future of WOHE: Sweet Briar was forced to close because the terms of its endowment prevented it from going co-ed. That argument presupposes that WOHE is a doomed anachronism, a relic, an anchor that must be slipped if a school is to survive in “the modern world”—whence, because Sweet Briar could not, it died. And it is false from its roots to its leaves.

For one thing, Sweet Briar didn’t die, it was put down. It was not forced to close because it failed, it closed because its board and President concluded (or rather, speculated) that it would fail. For another, applications to women’s colleges have kept pace with applications to co-ed colleges in the last decade—hardly a sign that the model no longer retains market viability. 5 But the most important reason why that theory is false and must be resisted is because of its broader implications. Even if WOHE occupies a narrow market niche (we are told that north of 95% of potential recruits will not even consider a women’s college 6), it is at least a valid and arguably (and in my view) an important niche.

II.

From a purely descriptive standpoint, there are women who want WOHE. Set aside why for a moment. It doesn’t matter why; they exist, they have a legitimate viewpoint and desire, and the ground is disappearing out from under them as single-gender institutions either close or co-ed. Are there enough women who want WOHE, when added to those who can be talked into it, to enroll 15,000 students a year at each college in the Women’s College Coalition? Probably not. Most women’s colleges, however, are small affairs (another part of their appeal to many applicants, incidentally 7) so the better question is: Are there enough women who want WOHE, when added to those who can be talked into it, to enroll 500 students a year—and is that enough? Maybe. It depends on the college; could you run Sweet Briar as-is on 530 students? Maybe. Could you run a pared-down Sweet Briar on 530 students? Maybe. Could you run a different college, one with additional revenues from Grad or Distance programs, on 530 (campus) students? Maybe. And, in a different sense, isn’t that enough? To be sure, no one’s getting rich doing that, but it meets an under-served and legitimate need (an ever-less-served need), providing a valuable service that would not otherwise be available. Is that a worthwhile endeavor? I should think so.

It behooves us to go a little further: To not merely accept the desire for WOHE at face-value, but to defend it, to at least sketch a positive case. WOHE is important; in my view, its value rests on three pillars: Pedagogy, confidence, and security. 8 I’ll touch briefly on all three.

As to pedagogy: Male and female brains are, typically (and literally), wired differently. It is no surprise, then, that men and women typically respond to different teaching approaches. Dottie King, President of St. Mary-of-the-Woods College, Terre Haute, IN, spoke eloquently and forcefully to this point in 2011:

[T]he teaching pedagogy has to be different. We know that women feel a lack of confidence in some of the ways that [STEM] topics are traditionally taught. For example, if I’m teaching a mathematics problem and I say something like “the rest of that is obvious,” and then I go on: For a female, that may not be obvious at all. And how a young male interprets that is, “okay, I’ll figure that out later”; how a young woman interprets that is, “I’m not good at this, I don’t see it, and so I can’t do it.”

Females also do not like to see skipped steps. We’re very detail-oriented as opposed to males, we’re wired a little differently. We like to see every step of the problem, in detail, and we want to see more than one example, because with that, understanding the nuances of the problem, our confidence level comes up.

The final thing that’s really important for women is, and it’s not going to be surprising to you, we’re very verbal: We like to talk, and we talk out our solutions and bring meaning to our world that way … It’s just the nature of how we communicate with one another, and in the mathematics classroom, just silently working out problems doesn’t lead women to the kind of understanding they get if they’re allowed to talk through solutions in groups. So the pedagogy needs to be just a little different for us … [and] that same pedagogy … needs to go all the way [from middle school] up to the college level….

As to confidence, President King spoke effectively about that point, too, in the just-quoted interview. Having recounted her experience of being a student in a co-ed classroom and being reluctant to raise her hand, of not feeling confident to say “I don’t understand,” she noted her experience of later being a professor in a WOHE classroom:

After about four or five months, … I started realizing, I had a student in the classroom that reminded me very much of me … and I saw her one day raise her hand, she was a little shy about it, and a little apologetic about it, but she said, ‘could you do that again, I don’t understand.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, there’s the difference!’ Some students will thrive in any classroom and would have asked questions no matter he setting, but that student would have been me, and would not have asked….

. . . .

Young women who would become leaders any place quickly became leaders at [the Woods] … Some people were just destined and it was part of their very nature to be leaders…. But I began to notice something else: Students who I’m sure would survive any place and would graduate, but would not be leaders, I saw them assume leadership roles.

And I read about an interesting study where in the first go-round, they took groups of young women …, and each grouping of three was given a totally unknown problem to solve. And purposely it was above their ability level, so they would have to rely on trial and some unique ways to bring themselves to solution. Then a lot of observation was done….  And in each female group of three, there would be a lot of work on the problem, and a lot of discussion, … and everyone was sort of equal in the group, and everyone was very involved…. Then they repeated the whole thing with a different group, but now the groups of three were two females and one male…. [In the same scenario,] the women became silent note-takers, the male led the way, … and the women took notes and supported anything he wanted to do, they were no longer actively involved in the process at all. And I thought that was fascinating.

So say we all. I take this to have been the point underscored by Elizabeth Kiss, President of Agnes Scott College, Decatur, GA, in regard to the “incubator” role of women’s colleges:

[T]here is growing evidence that women students at coeducational colleges and universities continue to face subtle pressures that impede full equality of opportunity.  This was the conclusion … [of] a 2002-2003 study which found that women’s intellectual and personal confidence dropped over the course of their undergraduate years.  As one respondent put it, “being cute trumps being smart in the social environment.”  By contrast, women’s colleges build self-esteem and nurture a strong and feisty sense of self, preparing women to be leaders in a coeducational world. 

I asked a Sweet Briar alumna (now in her thirties) to talk about what the college meant to her, and she emphasized this point:

Sweet Briar is where I found my confidence in who I am.  I was super socially awkward as a high schooler … [and although I] picked SBC not so much because of the single-sex as because I fell in love with the campus and it seemed romantic and glamorous to go far away from home to this gorgeous place in the mountains[, I w]ound up discovering that I could completely be myself and no one thought I was weird.

Similarly, Joanne Creighton, then-President of Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA: “With its own powerful traditions, norms, and values, and a sense of wholeness sui generis, a women’s college helps to develop in students a sense of confidence, competence, and agency. 9

A brief aside is in order to reject the notion that this is a futile exercise because, sooner-or-later, these women will have to deal with integrated environments. Yes, she will—but as a graduate. Sooner-or-later a soldier will have to face battle; should we abolish basic training? Sooner or later, a plant will have to face the elements outdoors; should we discard any seedling that needs to be started and nurtured under glass or indoors? Higher ed is not just about information transfer but formation, and if a woman leaves a woman’s college at 22 in the same state in which she arrived at 18, something has gone wrong. 10 King again:

I’m often asked . . . ‘OK, we get it, they come to a place where they feel safe and empowered and they find their voice. But when happens then when they go out into the real world?’ And I smile when I say it, ‘Once a woman finds her voice, she never loses it.’ So it’s not like she’s only confident in this sheltered environment, she just has to find the confidence. Then she always carries it with her.

Finally, as to safety: We are routinely warned about the dangers of violence, and particularly rape, on co-ed campi: That “on campus now … not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture.” What will happen at Wilson, which admitted male students last academic year and male residential students this academic year? It’s too soon to tell; the data reporting lags a couple of years behind. But that doesn’t leave us without data. Take Wells College, of Aurora, NY, which has a similar enrollment to Sweet Briar, and which went co-ed in 2005. According to data reported to http://ope.ed.gov/security, Wells had zero incidents of “forcible sex offenses” in 2001, 2002, 2003, or 2004; it had its first the same year that it went co-ed, another one the following year, two in 2009, and one each in 2012 and 2013, the last reported year. It had zero incidents of “aggravated assault” in 2001, 2002, 2003, or 2004; it had its first the same year that it went co-ed. Burglary went through the roof, too: 2001 was, confessedly, a bad year, with three reported incidents, but after four consecutive years without a recorded incident, Wells saw five in 2006, two in 2007, three in 2009, six in 2011, and two in 2012. This is a campus with ~500 students. 11The trend is clear and intuitive. FOHE does not eliminate the possibility of sexual violence on-campus, but it makes it less likely. As Bill Walton astutely asks: “When was the last time you read an exposé about sexual misconduct or hazing at a single-sex college?” 

 In fine, WOHE is important. There are several positive cases for it, but even if you don’t buy any of them, it’s undeniable that there are women who want it, and their needs are served by a small number of options. Women’s colleges are a precious and endangered resource, and when they’re gone, thanks in large part to Title IX, it is supremely unlikely that we can ever get them back. That is the context in which to hear from Bill Walton again: “Every person considering the university route — male and female — should be afforded the opportunity to select the school that is right for them. Small or big. Private or public. Single-sex or co-ed. Closing Sweet Briar would only remove another option for women and there is no financial basis for the closure. There is no fiscal distress so dire that it would sanction the shuttering of the college.” 

III.

I am not oblivious, of course, to the reality that WOHE’s perch is precarious. Discussing the question with students and alumnae, one has the definite impression that the value of WOHE is seen most clearly in the rear-view mirror rather than being an active draw at the time of admission, 12 and obviously that is a substantial hurdle. Here’s Agnes Scott’s President Kiss again: “The evidence for the continued relevance and importance of women’s colleges is clear.  Our challenge is to get this message out to prospective students and their families….” Let’s think about those prospective students for a moment.

It seems to me that the pool of potential applicants—the sum of women applying to college in the catchment area—breaks into four groups. The most numerous, we are told, will not consider WOHE, period. (We’re told that that group comprises anywhere up to 98% of all applicants, and I will stipulate that as a fact, arguendo; if the number seems daunting, consider that every WCC women’s college can meet current freshman enrollments with only 1% of all applicants. 13)  A second group strongly favors WOHE, for whatever reasons. A third group, which I suspect to be the least numerous, is completely indifferent: They would attend a women-only college, or not, without it playing any strong part in their selection. Finally, there is a fourth group, analytically-distinct from the second: Women who are well-disposed toward WOHE, whose preference is WOHE, but not decisively. (Arguably, there is a fifth group: Those whose parents have a very strong view in favor of WOHE and are able to impress upon their daughters this desire with sufficient intensity to win deference on the point.) The challenge for the Admissions teams at colleges like Sweet Briar is to ensure that they are on the radar for students in all but the first group, and the challenge for all of us in the WOHE community is to articulate and press a positive case for WOHE that chips off a few applicants from group one and pushes them into group three, and pushes applicants from group three into group four. 

Let us wrap up by returning to Sweet Briar. Reading Parker’s departing remarks has a whip-saw effect; one is left to wonder which of three unpleasant possibilities is true: Parker dissembled , or Jones and the board are now dissembling, or else the situation deteriorated rapidly in the few months between Parker’s departure and the decision to close. 14 Perhaps it is all three. But it must be at least one. Either way, the New York Times is surely correct to observe that that board’s decision “has transformed this tranquil community into a hotbed of anger and activism”; it quotes senior Leah Lumenuck ’15: “I now know more about nonprofit law than I feel I know about chemistry — and I’m a chemistry major. We’re at a liberal arts college that empowers women. Now we’re finding ways to use that education to empower ourselves.” And Bill Walton, one more time: “Sweet Briar educated her Vixens well and, suspicions aroused, they are fighting back with a dedication and ferocity that would make Indiana Fletcher Williams flush with pride!” It seems to me, then, that Sweet Briar, like many women’s colleges, has been a greenhouse in which many young women have been nurtured and grown into leaders. If so, the board has perhaps picked a fight with the wrong group of women. Sic semper tyrannis indeed.

Notes:

  1. 85 Sweet Briar Magazine, no. 1, at 2 (2014). Full disclosure is in order: I work for a women’s liberal-arts college (although not SBC), which means that I am not without a dog in this race.
  2. Id., at 3.
  3. Official enrollment figures are not available, but US News reports the following: Spring 2015: 703; Spring 2014: 723; Spring 2013: 745; Spring 2012: 747; Spring 2011: 745. Those numbers are problematic, because they seem to conflict with reports that 2015 enrollment had dropped to the mid-500s. But it seems reasonable to conclude that if they are off, they are likely off consistently, which makes them sufficiently reliable for assessing trends even if  we need to subtract 200 from each number.
  4. Compared to the heavyweights, a $94 million endowment may seem puny, but that isn’t the right comparison. The right comparison is to other Colleges in the Women’s College Coalition, and of the 38 member institutions for which endowment data is readily available, Sweet Briar clocks in 14th. If we exclude the gas giants Wellesley and Smith (which are so massively larger than the next-nearest members that they blow the curve and must be considered as being in a class of their own), the average endowment of the remaining 36 is $110.7 million, which suggests that Sweet Briar is far from dire straights. These numbers also contextualize the President’s claim that the college needed to almost treble its endowment to $250 million to survive: That would push Sweet Briar up from fourteenth to eighth on the afore-mentioned list, right behind Agnes Scott ($258 million) and a little ahead of Barnard College ($240.7 million).
  5. The Truth About Women’s Colleges: Comparative Enrollment Trends of Women’s Colleges  and Private, Coeducational Colleges, Women’s College Coalition, http://womenscolleges.org/sites/default/files/report/files/main/wcc01_trendsreport_final_interactive.pdf, pp.4-5 (June 2014) (“Total applications to private, co-ed colleges are up 59% and applications from women are up 60% from 2004 to 2012 … [and a]t women’s colleges, applications increased 53% from 2004 to 2012″).
  6. Sara Kratzok & Casey Near, Why a Women’s College?, Women’s College Coalition, http://womenscolleges.org/sites/default/files/report/files/main/why_a_womens_college_ebook.pdf, p.3 (2d ed. 2014).
  7. Cf. Kratzok & Near, at 6, 9.
  8. There are other arguments that could be made. For example, Joanne Creighton, then-President of Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA, framed a feminist argument in a 2007 article: “A woman’s college … is the equivalent of Virginia Woolf’s ‘room of one’s own,’ a college of women’s own, free of many of the inhibiting presumptions of the male-dominated world …Graduates are more able to see gender-repression when they encounter it and to distinguish between personal and systemic barriers to success.” Similarly, Johnnetta Cole, then-president of Bennett College, Greensboro, NC, suggests that “[a]s long as we live in a society where there is power and privilege in being white and being male, we need these institutions.” And another kind of argument focuses on the supposed honor-roll of graduates from women’s colleges: Surely if person x graduated from a women’s college, that validates WOHE, right? See, e.g., Kratzok & Near, p.20. To me, however, such arguments are less persuasive than conservative arguments that focus on fidelity to mission and the concerns mentioned in the text accompanying this footnote.
  9. Creighton, supra note 8.
  10. Accusations that this is “paternalistic” should be saved for liberal defenders of WOHE.
  11. Or take Lesley University, a much larger school in Cambridge, MA. When they went co-ed in 2005, http://ope.ed.gov/security says that they had zero forcible sex offenses, zero cases of aggravated assault, and zero cases of burglary in 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004 combined. But in 2006, they had their first case of a forcible sex offense, followed by two more in 2008, another in 2011, two in 2012, and three in 2013; aggravated assault cases also started to tick upwards, and burglary went from zero to twelve in 2006, six in 2007, one in 2008, three in 2009, three in 2010, eight in 2011, fourteen in 2012, and, in 2013, no fewer than twenty-seven. Or take Immaculata University of Malvern, PA, again a larger school compared to Sweet Briar. It started admitting men to the fall term of 2005; this one is something of an outlier in this survey because crime was a problem on-campus before male students were admitted, but it has seen a significant increase since then. It records no incidents of forcible sex offenses in 2001, 2002, 2003, then one in 2004, and none in 2005 or 2006–but then three in 2007, one in 2008, three in 2010, two in 2011, and two in 2012. Of 28 reported incidents of burglary since 2001, all but four came after coed.
  12. You can see this, for example, in the comments of the SBC alumna quoted above.
  13. Last year, Inside Higher Education reported that total FTF enrollments in American degree-granting institutions were 3,196,000, which can serve as a rough proxy for the lower threshold of applicants. Assume that half are female. If 98% of those would not even consider women’s colleges, that yields 31,960 applicants who would. I might concede that the model of WOHE was in serious trouble if the total number of seats in freshmen classes in all the WCC colleges approached or exceeded 32,000, because then they can’t fill those seats without chipping off some of those “never ever” students. By my rough count, however, there are just shy of 15,600 such seats to fill. Sweet Briar’s entire freshman class comprises less than 0.005% of all applicants.
  14. The last would seem the least plausible possibility if the allegation in the Amherst County complaint that the administration began taking steps to retain legal counsel to assist in closure as early as December 2014 proves true. Indeed, that complaint alleges that the board began to purge dissenting members before Parker’s departure.

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