Liberal Arts Lessons From Sweet Briar

By: Meggan Arp, Ph.D., MBA, Marketing Coordinator

Over a year after the alumnae of Sweet Briar College stymied a plan to close their institution, the College’s resilience is manifest with positive results: Sweet Briar has exceeded its fundraising goals for the 2016 fiscal year, raised $10.25 million in 10 months, balanced the budget without touching its endowment, and recruited five times more students.

These results are remarkable, especially, as written in my earlier blog, “Imagining the Future of Liberal Arts Colleges,” during a turbulent time when small liberal arts colleges, e.g., Burlington, Dowling, and St. Catherine Colleges, have faced closures and Moody’s Investors Service report forecasts that closure rates of small colleges and universities will triple and that mergers will double by 2017.

After providing Fundraising Counsel and Campaign Management to Saving Sweet Briar that raised $28.5 million in 110 days and delivered $12 million by September 2, 2015, Alexander Haas is honored to have provided Alumnae Relations and Development Counsel to Sweet Briar College throughout this past year and to have witnessed its resilience.

What vital lessons may other liberal arts colleges learn from the Sweet Briar saga?

In a recent Washington Post article, President Phillip C. Stone discusses three:

  • Spend well below budgetary means, not just within means: President Stone exhorts that “it was not enough to spend within their means; rather, it was necessary to spend well below them.”  He cites temporarily freezing salaries, cutting retirement contributions, and finding operational efficiencies in the areas of food service and vehicle maintenance as examples of such measures.
  • Play to your strengths: In the case of Sweet Briar, President Stone identifies Sweet Briar’s status as one of only two women’s colleges with an accredited engineering-degree program, along with its strong math and science departments that qualify it to be part of the national conversation of increasing the number of women and minorities in STEM, and its 3,250-acre campus on a former plantation that serves as an inspiring laboratory and classroom, as among its strengths. Recently, Sweet Briar announced that it will be augmenting its well-known ABET-accredited engineering degree program by launching a new computer science major beginning in fall 2017, pending approval by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.
  • Keep alumnae close and treasure them in ways that go beyond college magazine headlines: President Stone credits the hard work of the Sweet Briar alumnae who kept the College open by pledging $28.5 million in 100 days, delivering $12 million by September 2, 2015, and raising $10.25 million this year as examples of how a close alumnae network was critical to saving this liberal arts college.

These lessons exemplify how harnessing hallmarks of a liberal arts education such as thinking imaginatively, analytically, creatively, and collaboratively can help liberal arts colleges to adapt to extraordinary circumstances, to flourish, and to continue contributing to the social good of producing alumni that make a positive impact on their institutions and the world beyond.

After all, as Tom Clynes sets forth in his article, “Where Nobel Winners Get Their Start,” recent research demonstrates that alumni from small, elite institutions have the best chance of winning a Nobel Prize.  We thus have a categorical imperative to preserve liberal arts institutions for the greater good of our society and not merely to close the doors of these institutions without first attempting to apply these lessons, among others, learned from Sweet Briar.

Although President Stone concedes that Sweet Briar “has not reached full strength” yet, these measures certainly are lessons that liberal arts colleges may heed as they balance preserving their liberal arts missions and proving the value of a liberal arts degree by adapting to market conditions.