Sweet Briar College announced its closure on March 3, 2015

SWC mugYou might be wondering why I’ve chosen to write about an announcement that a small, but historic women’s liberal arts college is planning to close. What does that have to do with atomic energy?

The college, Sweet Briar College, is located a little less than an hour from my Forest, VA home. I’ve met a few of the faculty and students at American Nuclear Society and Engineering Week meetings during my four and a half years in the Lynchburg area. At the December 2014 meeting, I spoke with a graduating senior and a professor. They invited me to come and give a talk about nuclear energy to the school’s Engineering Club.

You might be surprised to hear that a liberal arts college has such a club, but engineering is a creative field whose graduates can change the world by using applied science to improve physical conditions for masses of people.

We scheduled the talk for noon on March 3, 3015 — yesterday.

As we were setting up for the talk, my host informed me that the college president had made an announcement at about 10:00 am that he was convening an “all college” meeting at noon. She apologized profusely, but told me that the talk was not mandatory. She knew it would affect the attendance numbers but thought that some people would make the decision to come, eat pizza and listen to me, figuring they would hear about whatever the president had to say in due time.

Before the talk, I had a brief chat with one of the professors who helped to establish the engineering science major at Sweet Briar. The effort began in 2005; the program received its accreditation in 2010. The initial expectations were rather modest, with plans to attract enough students to graduate perhaps five majors each year and to provide enriching courses for students in other curricula. Instead, the program has proven quite popular and produces about 20 graduates per year with room for a few more.

It is one of only two women’s colleges in the US that offer an accredited degree in engineering.

I spoke to a group of about 20-25 young women who were animated and full of questions. The topic of the talk was using nuclear energy as a tool to empower human society while reducing production of combustion waste material that is changing our global atmospheric chemistry. Near the end of the talk, my wife, who was filming the talk for me, noted a few members of the audience surreptitiously checking their phones and getting a stunned look on their faces. One woman put her head down and seemed to be sobbing.

After I finished talking and answering questions, we found out that the college president had announced that the school’s board of trustees had voted to close the 114-year-old school. This semester is the last one; nearly all of the staff will be out of a job and all of the underclass students will have to find another place where they can complete their degree programs.

The school’s explanation for the decision is that recruitment is getting too difficult. Sweet Briar has an enrollment of about 600 students but classes in recent years have been shrinking a bit even as the admissions office has offered more and more financial aid. The school is not in dire financial condition; it has a $94 million endowment. However, the Board decided that the trend lines were not in the right direction and they did not want to gradually sink.

Though Sweet Briar is in a rural area, it is immediately off an exit of US 29, a nearly interstate highway quality road with a 70 MPH speed limit between Sweet Briar and Lynchburg. It took me less than 25 minutes after leaving my talk to arrive in downtown Lynchburg for an after-talk meal.

Sweet Briar College has a gorgeous campus nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains. Apparently, it has an “insanely fast” wi-fi network that blankets its 3,000 acre campus.

Lynchburg is a regional growth story and a place where there are good jobs with several major employers interested in hiring talented young people, especially those who can bring a diverse point of view to fields that require both technical expertise and a good understanding of humanity.

Areva, B&W, Harris, and several smaller communications firms all have large operations in the Lynchburg area. In fact, the young lady who invited me to talk is a Sweet Briar senior who told me excitedly that she had just landed a job with Areva starting 2 weeks after graduation.

My point is to suggest that the school might have pulled the plug too early, especially if its recent recruitment goal misses are on the order of a few dozen students. I am not saying that their engineering program would be the savior of the school, but that there is a very important role for people who have an interest in both the humanities and applied science.

I wonder if the Board of Trustees approached the Lynchburg business community for assistance as they were trying to find a path that would enable the college to survive and prosper. Engagement with the business community could improve the existing internship programs and provide opportunities to establish work-study programs. The companies have important questions requiring focused research that could help support some of the faculty members with grants.

This might be just one more losing cause where my awareness and interest has come way too late to have any effect on the outcome. If Sweet Briar College has not talked to Lynchburg area employers, there might be an opportunity if action happens immediately.

I’ve been in plenty of meetings and discussions over the years that have focused on the challenge of attracting women into engineering and other applied science fields AND providing them with a supportive, nurturing, confidence-building environment once they start working.

One path that has not been fully explored is partnering with women’s liberal arts colleges to develop appropriate curricula and major programs. Those institutions have historically provided women with a useful set of tools that can enable them to thrive in competitive, formerly male-dominated professions. By their very nature, they are institutions where women take on leadership roles and where they are not distracted or disrespected by some of the activities that occur on coeducational campuses.

Nuclear technology is a field that desperately needs to improve its outreach to women, not only as potential employees, but as political decision makers and potential customers. Lynchburg has a large nuclear industry that is under duress, partly because it has not successfully explained its value to enough women.

Now I hope you understand why I chose to write about the imminent closure of a small, private, women’s liberal arts college. It is out of a vain hope that this article might reach a few people who can help to change the story.

PS – There are some great images of the school available using “Sweet Briar College images” as a Google search term. We didn’t have a still camera with us yesterday, but I think I’ll have to go back and get some photos to share with you. If you try to reach the college web site anytime soon, you will be met with error messages. The news resulted in so much traffic that the site crashed hard.

Additional reading

Washington Post – March 3, 2015 Sweet Briar College to close because of financial challenges

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