Sweet Briar College, Back from the Brink One Year Later

Mar 28, 2016

One year ago, Sweet Briar College shocked its students, faculty and alumnae by announcing that the 114 year old school would be closing — and quick — due to financial difficulties. But after a massive social media campaign and a successful lawsuit, the college is still kicking one year later. WMRA's Emily Richardson-Lorente visited the campus in Amherst.

[Admissions Tour]

Hannah: “Couple things that I do on campus, I work in admissions. Giving tours and walking backwards are my specialty …”

This is the sound of an admissions tour at Sweet Briar College, one year after its students were told to start applying elsewhere. Tour leader Hannah Beall was a sophomore.

HANNAH BEALL: Just so, so sad. I couldn't imagine going anywhere else. I didn't want to write applications. I didn't know how to lie on applications, like why do you want to come to our school? I don’t!

The news was equally upsetting for faculty — many of whom were losing not just their jobs, but their homes on campus as well. Professor Hank Yochum says the whole experience was “surreal.”

HANK YOCHUM: It was a mess and it took you know — psychologically, I don't — I still don't think I'm back to normal and I think it took — I was in a fog for many months. A fog for sure.

Facing so called “insurmountable financial challenges,” Sweet Briar seemed doomed. Enrollment had been falling for years, the college had been drawing down its sizable endowment faster than was sustainable, and the administration decided it would be kinder to close the college quickly, rather than draw the process out. Sweet Briar’s former interim president Jimmy Jones said this in a CBS News interview.

[TV NEWS CLIP]

Reporter: There’s nothing you could have done to save the day?

Interim President Jimmy Jones: There’s nothing anyone could have done.

But after the initial shock wore off, students, teachers and alumnae decided they weren’t having it.

[CLIP FROM PEP RALLY VIDEO CLIP]

“We … will … save … Sweet Briar!!! Wooooooo!”

They launched a #SaveSweetBriar campaign, began raising money, and went to court to try to keep the college open. Against all odds, they won. It’s a day Hannah Beall won’t forget.

BEALL: The most amount of joy I think I've ever felt in my entire life knowing that I'd be able to come home.

But by the time the court ruled in the alumnae’s favor, 4 months had passed since the closing announcement, and the college was already a shell of its former self.

PHIL STONE: Everything had been done except turn out the lights.

That’s Phil Stone, Sweet Briar’s new president. He came out of retirement last year to help resurrect the college. But when he arrived on campus on July 2nd, he found 1,800 emails in his in-box, no students and virtually no staff.

PHIL STONE: Pretty bleak there for a day or two but within six weeks the school was open. And it's been almost I think I could say almost a flawless academic year.

Flawless perhaps, but the school is now running with 27% fewer teachers, and 58% fewer students. But they’re working on bringing those numbers back up.

[Admissions tour]

Hannah: “Any questions at all?”

Today Hannah Beall is showing a family from Austin, Texas around campus. Brianna Garcia wants to study pre-med and Sweet Briar is at the top of her list. 

BRIANNA GARCIA: Well, it's a beautiful campus and I really want to come here. So I love it.

REPORTER: Do you have any concerns about coming to a school that almost closed a year ago?

GARCIA: Yes I do, but I've seen, you know, the alumni alliance fight to keep it open so I feel like that's not going to happen.

And it may NOT happen. But Sweet Briar IS going to need many more students like Brianna to enroll if the college is to become self-sustaining again. Total enrollment at Sweet Briar has never been very big. When the closing was announced, the entire student body on this 3000 plus acre campus was only 560 women. Phil Stone has his sights set higher now.

STONE: We need to get to 800. It'll take us four or five years to do it. But having a record number of applications at this point certainly encourages us that we're on the right track to get the number of students we need.

It’s ironic that after such a PR nightmare, the school now has the highest number of applicants in its history — at least as far back as the records go. But there’s another irony, too — a crueler one. Although the closing wasn’t completed, it cost Sweet Briar somewhere between $30 and $40 million dollars to initiate.

STONE: Forfeited tuition. Insurance, legal fees, severance payments. We're having to claw our way back just to get out of the hole of the closing.

That’s why Phil Stone spends a lot of time traveling. In the weeks before our interview, he’d been in China recruiting new students and in New York, Texas and Florida meeting alumnae.

STONE: We're not asking them to just send in money so we can pay bills, we're simply saying make us stable enough that we can get through these three or four years of low enrollment, till we can get to where we need to be.

And it’s working. The initial #SaveSweetBriar campaign raised over $28 million. And earlier this month, a mini-fundraising campaign on the anniversary of the closing announcement exceeded its goal.

STONE: We set a target for five hundred thousand dollars to raise in one day; we went over. So we said OK, we'll celebrate the founder’s birthday a few days later and let's do it again and we did and went over again.

Of course that fundraising success begs a question. How long can the urgency be maintained, even after the crisis seems to have passed?

STONE: I think probably 115 fifteen years. That's how long we've been here, and that's how long we want to be here again. You know in all fairness I'm kidding but the alumnae are not quitting. They love their college, that's why they saved it.

Back on tour, Junior Hannah Beall says Sweet Briar’s second chance has given her and her fellow students a new appreciation for their school.

BEALL: Everyone’s that much more fortunate to be here, and filled with gratitude. We know what we have, we know what we almost lost. No way it's happening again.