Sweet Briar College announced its closure on March 3, 2015 1

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55 Comments

  1. Thank you for the saddening and heartfelt post, Rod. One of my good friends is a sweet briar grad and a refreshingly self assured woman. All the talk around getting good talent and encouraging women in stem didn’t translate into enough support of this engineering program in this case it seems.

    1. Caroline:

      The engineering science program is exceeding expectations. I believe there is untapped potential partnerships and support that could result in better recruitment results.

  2. Rod , impressive writing. Women’s colleges and universities offer campus safety that is simply not possible on coeducational campuses. In addition the offer opportunities for women to bevelop social skills and a level of self confidence that is more difficult to find in situations where women are competing with men. Al this has long been documented. The marketing failure of such an attractive package should be laid aat the feet of those who voted to shut Sweet Brier down.

  3. Simply unbelievable something could not be done. Its a beautiful school that offered a unique experience.

  4. Rod, can you share some of the questions the students had for you? And did you get any kind of sense on their attitudes towards fission power??

    1. @Jim L.

      I will be publishing a complete video of the talk. The questions come through pretty well.

      None of the women expressed opposition to nuclear energy, but about half of them indicated that they were neutral and curious.

      1. I had seen this on the news, but was surprised when I read that you were speaking on the very day that it closed. Such a coincidence!

        I hope that the students manage to find a good future. I could not imagine being in that situation.

  5. Terrible news.It is not rare for small advanced education institutions, co-ed or women only, to become absorbed or affiliated with a larger institution, which can provide more financial stability. Newcomb College in NOLA was originally all women, Tulane all men, now they are about one and the same. This news is a shame and certainly will be a hardship on all concerned. I agree with you; were all feasible options actually considered?

    1. Newcomb College was still able to retain some of its own identity as well. They made Newcomb its own brand at Tulane. Its historical role as a positive factor and in some cases a only real option in the academic lives of young women was never forgotten either. Tulane was/is constantly building on that.

      The rural feel of its Campus, the history, things like the Riding Program at Sweet Briar College is a jewel. Its a shame that cant be used more to keep it afloat than a excuse for its dismantling. Katrina almost killed Newcomb/Tulane, but they pulled it together. I am happy they did. It was a honor and a incredibly unique experience to attend.

      1. I am proud to report that Sweet Briar was one of the first responders to the Newcomb/Tulane students following Katrina, offering an academic home and support to the displaced students.

        Thank you for your insightful article. I am glad you were on campus that day.

        1. No I am a little familiar with the area and looked at the Sweet Briar pictures and program on-line. Its a beautiful campus. Lots of colleges chipped in for NOLA students in their time of need. Hopefully the same will happen again for Sweet Briar – but I hope it doesn’t come down to that.

        2. Thank you Sweet Briar. My wife is a Newcomb/Tulane grad ’76. She is very grateful for the external support they received in their hour of need. Also from their strong alumni organization.

  6. Sweet Briar is just down the road from my old high school (although the roads were a little different in those days — no bypass).

    Well, Rod, I hope that you at least got to get out to enjoy the scenic beauty of the Liberty University’s future “North Campus.” 😉 It’s much prettier a month or two later, in the Spring, however.

    1. @Brian

      Are you joking or have you heard any rumors about a potential real estate deal for the established campus, the two existing lakes and the surrounding 2,800 acres?

      1. Rod – It’s part joking, part speculation.

        The buildings that were Craddock Terry when I was a kid are now Liberty University. The building that was General Electric when I was a teenager (I had a summer job working there) is now Liberty University. Notice the trend?

        I’m just repeating, with a wink and a nod, what I’ve been hearing around town.

        Who do you think will purchase an “established campus, … two existing lakes and the surrounding 2,800 acres” in Amherst County? I guess the other possibility is for it to become a cattle farm. But there’s a lot more money to be made in being the Baptist (non-profit) version of the University of Phoenix Online.

        1. How does 2,800 acres fit into the business plan for an online school?
          Maybe an established campus could somehow fit into an online school’s operations, but I’m not really sure how.
          One or 2 week stays for certain intensive seminars, perhaps?

          1. While Liberty has over 100,000 online students, it also has almost 20,000 students in town and that number has been growing. The school is always looking for real estate, especially if it can be had at a good price.

  7. Latin Trivia – the school’s motto is “Rosam quae meruit ferat.” You can see the words inscribed in green near the bottom of the white coffee cup in the photo which Rod had embedded in this blog post. It means (literally translated):

    “Who has earned may bear a rose.”
    .
    Latin uses fewer words than English for the same sentence because of how nouns are declined and verbs conjugated. It also uses very few propositions and no articles. It is a very logical language.

    1. The death of “stuff” has little to do with logic, be it language or Vermont Yankee. It has more to do with il-logic, imposed by the speaking primates using the “stuff.” They often do not live long and prosper.

      1. I am not sure that I understand your comment, MJD. I regret the death of this college which Rod had visited the other day. I regret even more the death of Vermont Yankee. As to Latin, it is still used in the Vatican (e.g., Papal Encyclicals, Apostolic Exhortations, etc.), and I still read the writings of Cicero, Tacitus, Cato and others in the original (Google Latin Library) because the principles and ideas about which these men (however flawed and imperfect they were) are still not dead. It is sad to throw something away because it is old for something modern that is cheap and tawdry. Thus do we shutdown VY and replace it with gas turbines. 🙁 And what pray tell will replace this college where young women were apparently getting a good education? O tempora! O mores!

        1. I agree with everything you say. My comment was sarcasm directed at my early HS experience of taking Latin. I was constantly asked why I wanted to take a “dead language”, and to a degree Latin is still called a dead language in some spheres. The fall of the Latin speaking empire was not based on logical decision making. That help? (When I took Latin in HS, reactors still burned wood).

          1. Latin’s a dead language
            As dead as dead can be
            First it killed the Romans
            And now it’s killing me!

            (Quod erat demonstrandum.)

            Back when I learned Latin, we didn’t have wood.  We had to make our reactors in the dirt at Oklo.

          2. Brian,

            The correct phrase is:

            Romani, ite domum.

            Translated, it means, “Romans, go home.”

            However, the Monty Python video is amusing.

            🙂

          3. My name is Brian, so I obviously I don’t know how to conjugate.

            But what if I wanted to say, “People called Romanes they go the house”?

          4. Brian, in Latin nouns and adjectives are declined whereas verbs are conjugated.

            Your statement, “People called Romanes they go the house,” is not proper English. Perhaps that is a typographical error.

            If you intended to say that people who are called Romans go to a house, then you would say:

            “Populi qui Romanos appellantur ad domum vadent.” (I have assumed the accusative plural Romanos when used as the object of the present passive plural verb appellantur.)

            If you intended to use the imperative and say, “People called Romans, go back to your home,” then you would say:

            “Populi appellati Romanos, revertete ad domum vostram.” (Again, I have assumed the accusative plural Romanos as the objective of the past plural passive participle appellati; by the way, domus is 4th declension singular feminine, not 2nd declension masculine as you might expect – another variation on the rule.)

            Latin has no articles “a”, “an” or “the.” Latin rarely uses prepositions (of, to, for, with, by, etc.); instead, endings of nouns and adjectives change.

            As for your name, “Brian,” it means strength, honor or nobility. The Latin most equivalent is “Virtus” which goes into our English word “Virtue.” It is 3rd declension masculine singular (not 2nd declension as you would expect nor 4th declension – this is an exception to the rule).

            I find Latin like engineering – very logical but with certain unexpected twists and turns that requires one to keep one’s head on one’s shoulders and pay attention. I find it best for me to broaden my mind beyond just English and force myself to use Latin (e.g., going to Latin Mass, reading the Latin Vulgate Bible, etc.) – it keeps those analogous skills I have in engineering sharper (or at least not as dull) as they otherwise would be. Besides, Latin has taught me that words mean everything and that is so important when debunking the outrageous claims of anti-nuclear activists.

          5. Relax. My “statement” was a quote from the Monty Python movie, and Brian is the name of its main character. It was a joke. 😉

            Latin was the first of the four languages that I have studied, and I remember more than just “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres.”

          6. Sorry, Brian. I had no idea. My apologies. I was only serious about Latin and Koine Greek. I never had your facility for modern languages. 🙁

  8. Perhaps I am too cynical….

    What happens to the $94 million endowment if they close the college?

    I wonder if struggling liberal arts colleges might do well to add science and engineering programs. Given how expensive a college degree has become, there seems to be at least a small cultural shift towards degrees which hold out a more certain promise of future employment. Liberal Arts enrollment might suffer under such circumstances, but colleges with science and engineering programs might be pleasantly surprised.

    1. I am a proud graduate of Sweet Briar pre-dating the engineering program by only two years. In addition to the current engineer programs, Sweet Briar has excellent STEM major programs including Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Physics, a hybrid Math-Physics major (which I received in 2008), as well as strong community outreach programs with the local school systems in multiple disciplines, in particular STEM. I have never suffered negative consequences having attended a small private liberal arts college in my career as an engineer for the US Navy – in fact, the critical thinking and outside of the box mentality that I bring to the table has been touted as an asset and attributed to the fact that single-sex education provides tangible benefits that extend far beyond the degree itself.

      While I certainly understand the stereotype that “liberal arts” could potentially convey, by no means does the fact that Sweet Briar is liberal arts preclude its ability to offer top notch education in STEM fields.

  9. @JohnGalt

    Several articles have indicated that the alumnae had no idea that the college was having financial difficulty or was in danger of closing. It appears that the college leaders did not tap their most valuable asset for both increasing the endowment and recruiting additional students.

    As I stated, Lynchburg is in easy reach of the campus. It is not a “large city” but it is a great place to live and work. There are a wide variety of employment opportunities with career tracks in the area. There is a reason why the neighborhood in which I live has been under continuous construction since 2008, when many large cities around the country had severe financial difficulties.

    The current college president has only been in office since August 2014. He was initially brought in in an interim status with an expected stay of 2 years while the search for the long term president continued. According to a local news article describing his selection, he had a good record for capital raising programs and increasing enrollment.

    There seemed to be long term plans for success for the school. I’m wondering what changed in such a short period of time and why the college leaders did not try harder to come up with more successful marketing plans. They were not very far off of their goals.

    Wonder if the gorgeous, apparently debt free, 3,000 acre campus right off of the exit of a major highway played any role in the decision to close the school? As Atomic Insights readers should know by now, I get suspicious of motives when illogical decisions are made to close seemingly valuable facilities.

    1. I do not know if Liberty University was the unspoken nearby facility being referred to or not. But if it was, then why not visit that university and give the same pro-nuclear pitch as was given elsewhere? It has several engineering curricula:

      Engineering Computer (B.S.)
      Engineering: Electrical Intelligence (B.S.)
      Engineering: Industrial and Systems (B.S.)
      Engineering: Mechanical (B.S.)

      If women from a secular college are encouraged to enter the nuclear power industry (and rightly so), then why not Baptist Christian men and women from a non-secular college? It could afford an opportunity to sniff around and see if something suspicious was really done. And please don’t say that Christians (Baptist or Catholic) from a non-secular college are unsuited for work in nuclear power.

      Again, I regret the closure of any place of higher education, secular or Christian, that is providing a valuable service to young people, men or women, and the circumstances of Sweet Briar’s closure are indeed suspect.

      1. @Ioannes

        At the same ANS meeting where I spoke to the Sweet Briar student about talking, I talked to an engineering professor at LU and gave him the same offer. So far, he has not followed through.

        For some reason, students are often better at that action than professors.

        I am planning to follow up myself after spring finally arrives here.

        1. It figures students are more pro-active than professors. 🙁 One Hail Mary for your success.

      2. My experience with graduates of LU’s computer science program have not been good, and it has not given me much confidence in their program or their students. I probably should stop there, but I’m going to add something more to think about.

        Here is an example of one of their “science” departments. I’m sorry, but it’s hard for me to have confidence in engineers whose “Defense in Depth” strategy would include, “Step 3: Pray really hard for a miracle.”

        And I’m a Baptist.

        1. God isn’t a slot machine or some invisible friend Who grants wishes willy-nilly. Praying really hard is a spiritual defense in depth, not a physical one. God expects us to use the brains He gave us to do the grunt level engineering necessary to provide that defense in depth. He may watch over fools (and drunks and the United States of America), but sometimes He lets fools reap what they have sown. Indeed rarely does He repeal the Laws of Physics, and a mentor in a 12 step program told me long ago to never expect any special dispensation for myself. The best defense in depth: proper prior planning prevents pi__ poor performance.

    2. If we have the right help, and refuse to stand down: you will see this get a LOT bigger. Rod, thank you for this. You’re SPOT ON. They tell us they tried. Evidence in community & alumnae is that they hid. KEEP talking. I am a graduate of SBC class of 1999. I represent thousands of science graduates and other self-assured, determined, & now scorned women. We all feel as you described, this Interim President and Board of Directors DID NOT do what they could to increase enrollment. They did inherit some long standing challenges. They did not reach out to their most powerful resource: us. I repeat: they hid. The “old girls network” of this place is unbelievable and everyone in the community knows it. Graduate school entrances and leadership roles in business show a disproportionately large number of SBC alumnae. We are small but mighty. We are uniformly confident & ready for careers in the real world (outside of gorgeous Central VA) especially creative arts, business, and science. I’m now a high school science teacher. I have a need to get young people as thrilled by science as I am. I’m unsettled to say the very least. There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark. We dearly need people like you on the help team. Lalasuzanne@yahoo.com

    3. Hi. I am a Sweet Briar College alumna (’86, Mathematics) who was shocked by the news and unaware of the leadership’s concerns about the financial stability of the college. I wish that the challenges the school faced had been articulated to stakeholders (and I hope they are soon!). The years I spent at Sweet Briar gave me lasting bonds with other alumnae, and the beauty of the 3,500 acre rural campus is beyond compare. Having a strong liberal arts education while majoring in mathematics gave me a skill set that many of my colleagues today don’t have.

      I have yet to see more detail about the financials, and certainly have not heard the back story behind the decision that was so abruptly communicated over email from an interim president. Grrrrr. It does seem like there is something that we’re not being told because the financial situation reported in the news doesn’t look so dire to shut down operations. It’s not enough for me see the dollars because it looks from those that there is time to address the concerns and develop different strategies for increasing/maintaining enrollment and managing operating costs. There would have to be renewed attention to the college’s identity, and albeit difficult strategic decisions to differentiate the school – hard in an environment where small liberal arts colleges are closing. I have to say, though, that Sweet Briar is a unique place for learning. Perhaps the school could have benefited from an identity derived from a strong focus on a few features. The current number of academic options – too many majors and major/minor combinations – was surprising to me. It sounds like STEM was doing well. I like the idea of having a not-to-diverse set of strong science and math programs set within the larger context of a liberal arts education. (Aside: When I was there, there was an environmental studies major, and I always thought that would be something that would do well over time.)

      Going to a small rural women’s college IN NO WAY prevented me from having a successful career as a health economist in urban environments. The frequent interactions and dialog between students and faculty gave us skills in relationship building that are essential in business; and who could resist hiring someone with both analytic skills and good written and verbal communication? 😉 I am forever grateful to Sweet Briar for providing a quality education that prepared me well for the road ahead.

      1. @laboston

        Thank you for sharing your story and your thoughts about the reasons for Sweet Briar’s apparent struggles. Good luck in the effort to reverse the decision and to then place the school on a more sustainable path.

      2. @laboston, would you mind giving me a call? It seems you may indeed have a skill set that could set you apart, again, and again. On this matter, of our cherished legacy, I would love to talk to you personally

  10. Rod,

    I lived in Lynchburg for over 20 years and finally reached escape velocity in December 2013. I agree that Sweet Briar has a great campus with great facilities. I have a couple of comments that I would like to add to this discussion.

    You stated “Lynchburg has a large nuclear industry that is under duress, partly because it has not successfully explained its value to enough women. I disagree with why it is under duress part. It is not partly because they have not successfully explained it value to women but rather due to 1) the cost of building these plants (I’m not sure we know today what it will take to build a 1,000 MW plant in the US and 2) The very low price of natural gas. I can build a 600 MW gas turbine plant in a few years for a few billion dollars. The cost of fuel may go up but the overall cost of electricity from natural gas is extremely low and is expected to stay there for awhile. Quite frankly until environmental credits are available to nuclear power plants unfortunately their construction will be an up hill battle. The nuclear companies to not have money to donate to Sweet Briar to help keep it afloat and most of their research is performed in-house. This person does not see a benefit of donating a small amount of money to keep a school open who hasn’t first gone to their alumni for help.

    Since yesterday when I heard that Sweet Briar was closing I asked who was the recipient of the sale of the property. Now I hear that their is a 94 million dollar endowment, who will get that. Nothing I have read has identified the recipient of the money. Interesting question and may be the reason the decision was made.

    I think it is a perfect North Campus for Liberty. You left out the Sears store in the mall which they also own. Run shuttle busses between the various campuses and it sure makes sense.

    1. @John F. Remark, PhD

      Thank you for joining the discussion. There are already numerous posts on Atomic Insights that help explain why I think your view of the root causes of the nuclear industry’s duress is incomplete and a bit simplistic. That’s not the topic of discussion on this post.

      I was not suggesting donations, but partnerships that provide mutual benefit. As I described, big companies are already spending a lot of money to attract and relocate a diverse set of talented employees; sometimes it’s worthwhile to look for beneficial opportunities in the immediate vicinity. A good deal of the “in house” research at some large companies is actually performed by contractors, not employees.

      On a strictly financial basis, you might be right about LU. If you’re more interested in high quality education producing people with a questioning attitude and a diversity of educational situations that suit a wide variety of different philosophies and learning styles, that would not be a good outcome. Bigger is not necessarily better.

  11. Thank you for posting this. I am an alumna of Sweet Briar and many of us are still fighting to keep the college open. We were blindsided by this news. None of us were given any indication that it was a possibility and we’re reeling. If you’d like to support the efforts to keep the college going, please look at the web site http://savingsweetbriar.com/
    You can also follow trends by looking for the hashtags #SaveSweetBriar and #ThinkIsForGirls

  12. My brother has been a theater professor at Sweet Briar College for 27 years. He and his wife, a Sweet Briar graduate, are stunned by the closure. Thank you for your article. I like to think there is hope that this venerable institution can be saved.

    1. @Leslie Deichi

      Thank you for your kind words. Based on the reactions I am seeing around the web, I believe your school can be saved. Rapid action is required, but it looks like SBC grads are mobilizing quickly. Would it be trite if I say “You go girls?”

  13. Thank you for such a fantastic article. I am a proud graduate of Sweet Briar College who studied both government and chemistry during my four years there. I turned down admission to Smith College and other “1st Tier” institutions because of the academic opportunities Sweet Briar offered in both the sciences and the liberal arts, and the special qualities of the campus, environment, and community that were unmatched anywhere else.

    It is truly a special place where every woman is challenged to be her best self and to push herself to the fullest in every aspect of her life — intellectually, personally, and in every co-cirricular activity she pursues. Sweet Briar women are expected to take on a lot and succeed, and they prepare us to do so in every avenue of life.

    Following Sweet Briar, I was admitted to a top tier joint degree law and graduate program in a major city, and practiced law at well-respected law firms in a major city for nearly 10 years. I have classmates thriving in law, medicine, academia, entrepreneurship, and the arts in major cities up and down each coast. We are a strong, successful network, and we were not informed of the College’s financial problems. We would have stopped this from happening.

    1. @Christine Bump

      Thank you for the kind words. However, I have a technical quibble with your last statement:

      We would have stopped this from happening.

      I think you should change your conditional perfect tense — “would have” — in the above quote to something closer to the following.

      “We can stop this from happening. Now that we have been told, we can come together to successfully address the issues and emerge stronger than ever.”

      BTW – I graduated from a small, specialized school with a Bachelor of Science in English.

  14. I wish all connected with Sweet Briar success in reversing a very bad decision.

    I suspect ulterior motives, largely because the issue was never brought up to the students or alumnae of Sweet Briar.

    Rod, isn’t it “interesting” that there was ZERO allowance of discussion regarding the Sweet Briar closing (where scientific and other enlightened sentiment is overwhelmingly against the action), whereas a very vocal and bullying group was allowed to dominate the VT Yankee meetings!?

    The forces of enlightenment are indeed under attack.

  15. Ruth Sponsler,
    You’re spot on as well. Thank you. We are getting organized. We still need LOTS of help. #savesweetbriar
    Be in touch,
    Thank you for caring enough to follow our very important story. Some have called us the “canary in the coal mine”. We prefer ‘indicator species’. And we are not extinct. We CAN survive this.

  16. [Begin Rant] Five years of engineering undergrad… followed by two in grad school studying Econ… none of it would I describe as “nurturing” One of the things I respect most about Math and Applied Science.. they do not (IMHO) NURTURE!!! If you let them, they’ll exhaust you physically and mentally. It’s not what you feel, or you think you know…it’s WHAT YOU CAN PROVE!! Furthermore, they had no reservation about proving as many times as I cared to challenge THAT I’M AN IDIOT!!! and the only way to prove them wrong is to continue assaulting the dark recesses of their torture chambers until you arise… for a brief interlude, victorious but not, by any means, NURTURED! [End Rant]

    1. @Joe Montague

      Attitudes like yours are extremely common among the engineers I’ve known. Similar attitudes convinced me that a BS in English at a technical trade school was a better match for me than an ABET accredited engineering degree at the same school.

      I learned to think and to quantify using practical applications of math.

      Technology dev needs some people like you, but there is also room for people that prefer for their tech to support them, not make life harder.

    2. Just because science and engineering questions tend to have clear cut answers (design questions usually have multiple answers) does not mean that engineering education cannot be nurturing.

      Wouldn’t it be better to bring kids into math by nurturing their interest and helping them to trust the subject, rather than bludgeoning them with it and then keeping the few who are willing to put up with the abuse?

      I write this as a person with two engineering degrees and I got mine in four years while working at the same time.

      My son’s algebra teacher sent out this email at the beginning of the school year explaining that she doesn’t give partial credit because that’s how Mars Probes crash into Mars or some such. Her teaching style is designed to make kids hate algebra or develop an OCD complex towards it or both. I really want to reply and tell her that our 7th graders aren’t there to build Mars probes; they’re there to take their first steps beyond arithmetic and wouldn’t it be nice if she focused on the mathematics instead of using her students as an outlet for her OCD.

      Now, I’ll be the first to admit that there’s a point at which it is worthwhile to stop giving partial credit and force students to develop a better attention to detail. But that time is not in 7th grade. In 7th grade she should be rewarding them for getting the concepts and if they occasionally get 6 instead of 8 when multiplying 4 & 2, maybe knock off a point but don’t discount an entire correctly worked problem, which demonstrates masterly of the bigger concept, just because of an arithmetic brain fart.

      Point is, there may be proper venues for the tough, take no prisoners approach, but it is not all or even most of the time. Education should include nurturing, unless the goal is to repel folks from the subject instead of to teach it.

      I work with the nicest bunch of engineers you’ll find anywhere.

      I’ve also seen plenty of the “I don’t need no nurturing” type. The power inherent in engineering knowledge can give one a bit of a god complex, and if you add to that a life with continuous employment, in which you’ve managed to dodge all the hard knocks such as layoffs, the combination of seeing further than your peers with your engineering viewpoint and the lack of setbacks can really give a person a critical case of arrogance.

      The nice engineers sure are better to work with. We have low turnover, vast accumulated experience, great cooperation, and a serendipity producing networking of ideas and information just because we enjoy keeping each other informed on what’s going on.

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