A year ago this time, the board at Sweet Briar College was secretly planning to shut down the school, convinced the women’s college could not survive in today’s world.
Now, here’s the new president at Sweet Briar, touring the country, and soon the world, telling a remarkable story about why the school is not just surviving, but perhaps even flourishing.
The saga of how Sweet Briar alumnae rallied to save their school — raising $30 million in 100 days and, just as importantly, waging a legal fight that resulted in a dramatic victory in the Virginia Supreme Court — has been told before.
Sweet Briar President Phil Stone went before the Salem Rotary last week to tell the rest of the story.
Even after the legal settlement last June that resulted in an agreement that the old board would quit and a new board, picked by the Saving Sweet Briar alumnae group, would take over, the outgoing regime did not go gently.
The previous administration was reluctant to share information, for one thing, so even though it was clear Stone would be the new president, he had little to go on as he prepared to take office.
When he arrived on campus on the evening of July 2, he discovered the outgoing regime had fired almost everyone. The old board had insisted the school would close on June 30, so, by golly, even though a settlement had been reached, the school still sent out an e-mail notifying all but a few people that their employment ended that date and cleared out their computer passwords.
Stone — who had spent 16 years as president of Bridgewater College before retiring to practice law with his children — is a courtly man, perhaps the living embodiment of a Virginia gentleman.
He was, perhaps, not feeling so gentlemanly when he learned what the outgoing administrators had done. “It was absolutely gratuitous,” he told the Salem Rotary. “Absolutely unnecessary. I could not believe people would be treated that way.”
One of his first duties was to re-hire faculty and staff. That was one of the easier tasks — although at one point he was writing up contracts himself because there was no one else to do it. Stone took office on July 4th weekend. On the first business day following the holiday, he had a lot of phone calls to make.
To the accrediting agency. How much money did the school have?, the agency asked. Stone had no idea — there was no staff there to tell him, and no records available.
To the commissioner of the Salem-based Old Dominion Athletic Conference, where the conversation went something like this:
We’re still in the ODAC, right?
Sure. How many teams will you have?
How many players do you have?
If it seems a miracle the school got saved, it seems an equal miracle that it re-opened on time — with all its programs, and its sports teams, intact.
Since then, there have been more such miracles — or maybe they’re not miracles, at all.
Sweet Briar’s enrollment had been declining, one of the things that led the old board to call it quits. Now enrollment is increasing. Most schools see enrollment drop from fall semester to spring semester — some students always drop out. Sweet Briar, though, has seen an increase — with 31 students transferring in, 20 of them former students who had gone elsewhere for the fall but now want to return “home.”
Even better, the school just logged a record number of applications (more than 1,300), thanks to an energetic alumnae recruiting effort, and something the school curiously didn’t have before — a full-time admissions director who doesn’t have to do that job and another one at the same time.
Sweet Briar won’t know what the yield on those applications will be until the spring. There’s always the danger the number is a mirage — it’s easy these days for students to click a button on the “common app” and apply to multiple colleges at once. Still, Stone points out, it’s better to have a record number of applications than to not have a record number.
Later this month, Stone leaves on a recruiting trip to China — in an effort to boost the school’s international enrollment. At Hollins University, nearly 6 percent of the students are international. At Randolph College, the figure is 10 percent. At Mount Holyoke, it’s 24 percent.
At Sweet Briar right now, it’s one. Not percent. One student — a Chinese woman who originally found the college on her own, through an Internet search. She’s helped make a recruiting video that will be shown to prospective students in China.
During question time at the Salem Rotary, Stone was asked what happened to Sweet Briar. His theory is the old board simply gave up. He had been on accrediting teams that had looked at the school’s finances in the recent past — and never found a hint of trouble.
He pointed out that on the day Sweet Briar “closed,” its $72 million endowment was still bigger than many colleges its size — though the board had been unwisely spending it down at a rate of up to 9 percent a year because expenses were simply too high. Stone has worked on cutting costs.
Now, here’s the most amazing thing of all. Under his tenure, Sweet Briar hasn’t spent any of its endowment. None. Not the $16 million in restricted funds that Attorney General Mark Herring released as part of the settlement, and not any of the unrestricted portion of the endowment. “I’m telling you those are miracles,” Stone says.
And, he says, all bills have been paid on time. It’s becoming even clearer now: Sweet Briar was only in trouble because its old board stopped trying. Stone may have been easing into semi-retirement last year this time, now he’s working full-time and more in a way that the previous regime clearly had not.
In one of those first chaotic days at Sweet Briar, a graduate from Charlottesville sent him a necktie — pink-and-green, the school’s colors. He now owns twelve of them, and is never seen in public without one. At his Salem appearance, maybe a half dozen alumnae showed up — all in their pink-and-green. After his talk, they queued up to shake his hand, give him a hug, and their thanks.
Nobody pressed a check into his hand, but one Salem businessman did take him aside to talk about a possible internship program at his engineering firm. For a school that likes to talk up its engineering program — Sweet Briar is one of just two women’s colleges to offer an engineering degree — that’s just as good as money in the bank.