Back from brink, all-women Sweet Briar College faces rough road

Reuters News
|
Posted: Jul 23, 2015 7:26 AM

By Ian Simpson

SWEET BRIAR, Va. (Reuters) - High school senior Alexis Zsamboran was devastated when she heard that Sweet Briar College was planning to close and join a long line of U.S. all-women's schools that have shut their doors.

Recruited to play field hockey, the 19-year-old from Toms River, New Jersey, had fallen in love with the school when she visited its campus nestled in the Blue Ridge foothills of Virginia.

"I had no interest in looking at any other school after that," she said. "When I heard the news it was closing I was heartbroken because I didn't know where to look."

Thanks to a deal approved by a Virginia judge last month, Zsamboran will be among 300 women enrolled to start class at Sweet Briar in August. That will make her part of a bid to reinvent the 114-year-old college and prove that its all-women educational model remains relevant.

Last month Sweet Briar, best known for its equestrian program, won a reprieve when a judge approved a deal in which alumnae pumped millions of dollars into the school to keep it operating.

Phillip Stone, who was named Sweet Briar's president on July 2, said in an interview that he was in the midst of setting a long-term strategy for the school, which has endured slumping enrollment and bled money in recent years.

Sweet Briar's name suggests white-gloved gentility but, with costs soaring for U.S. college degrees, the image of exclusivity is no longer enough for the rural school and its $47,000 price tag for annual tuition, room and board, Stone said.

RECRUITING ABROAD

"There should not be any continuing caricature of Sweet Briar, if it is still out there, that it's for rich girls who like to ride horses and have a pretty place to go to school and maybe just be a good liberal arts education."

Recruiting students from East Asia and the Middle East, using the campus for conferences and building on the school's engineering program are all part of Stone's turnaround plan.

"I don't have any interest in coming to help bury a college that's dying. That's not on my radar," said Stone, 72, a lawyer and formerly president of Bridgewater College, a liberal arts school in Virginia.

Sweet Briar's near-closure and comeback in recent months drew national attention and marked a rare example of survival for an all-women's school in the United States.

The number of schools in the Women's College Coalition has shrunk to 43 from 230 in 1960, a decline that mirrored moves by the vast majority of U.S. colleges and universities to open their doors to men and women.

The group's president, Michele Ozumba, said Sweet Briar needed a couple of rebuilding years before cautious families would be confident enough to send their daughters there.

"It's going to be a monumental task to rebrand itself and reinvent itself," she said.

Sweet Briar seems an unlikely place for drama, with its manicured lawns, shade trees, sweeping views, brick buildings and its listing on the National Registry of Historic places. Its 3,250 acres (1,315 hectares) make it the fourth-biggest U.S. campus and encompass riding trails, woods and lakes.

Its graduates include the mother of U.S. first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, film critic Molly Haskell, entrepreneur Leah Busque, ambassador Colleen Bell and author Mary Lee Settle.

"HEART-WRENCHINGLY HORRIBLE"

Its long history looked set to end in March, when college officials said the school would close. They blamed it on enrollment that had shrunk 14 percent over six years to 561 last year, an inadequate endowment and the decline in the appeal of same-sex institutions.

Linda Fink, the chair of the faculty executive committee, called the announcement "heart-wrenchingly horrible" for the roughly 100 faculty members.

"It was a shattering of our world," she said.

Fighting back, alumnae filed suit and pumped in money. A Virginia judge on June 22 approved a settlement mediated by Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring to keep the school open.

The supporters' group Saving Sweet Briar turned in $5 million and has to deliver a total of $12 million in donations by early September.

The donations allowed supporters to petition the attorney general's office to release $16 million from the endowment to support operations. An August 2014 credit report put Sweet Briar's endowment at $91 million, and Stone had no updated figure.

Stone said nearly 300 women were enrolled for the start of school in late August, including a couple of dozen first-year students. About 60 faculty members remain.

Targets for putting Sweet Briar on a solid footing are enrollment of 800 students and limiting endowment drawdown to 5 percent a year, Stone said. The figure was at least 12 percent last year.

"I would say at that point we're going to be successful," he said. "We're going to be here for the long haul."

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Bill Trott)