If you read a newspaper, saw a newscast, or even simply owned a Twitter feed last spring, you probably heard the name Sweet Briar College mentioned. A lot. That’s because in early March, with no warning to faculty, staff, or students, the women’s college that opened its doors in 1901 announced that it would close in August. Then, as the echoes from the announcement still rippled over alumnae, donors, and those directly affected by the news, a wave of protest built (#SaveSweetBriar) – as did a major fundraising campaign – that eventually rose as high as the Virginia Supreme Court, which ruled in early June that the administration of the college did not, in fact, have the authority to close the institution because doing so would break the trust upon which the school was founded. (Administrators had argued in the lower courts that the college was a corporation, not a trust, and therefore could be closed.)
And then at the end of June, a miracle: headlines across the country announced that, thanks to the monumental fundraising efforts of the alumnae, Sweet Briar would remain open for the 2015-2016 school year. In fact, coalesced by the group “Saving Sweet Briar,” an infusion of $12 million in donations was made available to a new administration and the Virginia attorney general unlocked an additional $16 million from the college’s endowment to help fund operating costs for the year.
Meanwhile, just days before our tour bus rolled onto campus, it was announced that, thanks to a fiscally prudent budget for the year, Sweet Briar won’t draw more than $3.5 million from the endowment – its lowest rate of draw from the endowment in years.
In summary: This tiny women’s college is back in a big way.
(How big? you ask. Well, readers, the day we were there, they had just won a visit from Seth Meyers in a national contest.)
During our time on campus, we learned that, of course, there have been growing pains and challenges this fall. Enrollment isn’t nearly what it was or should be (and will be) – there are just 250 intrepid women enrolled this fall, though more will transfer in for spring semester (many returning to the school after enrolling at other institutions this fall in the wake of the proposed closure) – but those who are there are happy and involved. In fact, many of the faculty we spoke with pointed out that it’s been a wonderful year for the highly motivated students who want extra research opportunities or independent studies because faculty have the time to devote to working with them in these endeavors because they aren’t carrying extra teaching loads. In particular, women with interest in the sciences have great opportunities in areas like biology (field biology is a favorite area of study at SBC) and engineering, of which Sweet Briar is one of only two ABET approved engineering programs at a women’s college in the U.S. What’s more, Sweet Briar’s two flagship off-campus programs (Junior Year France and Junior Year Spain) are also back online after being temporarily transferred to neighboring women’s college Hollins University.
Sweet Briar’s famed riding program is also back in business, offering its varsity IHSA hunt seat team, its field team (which competes in hunter trials and hunter paces), and it’s American National Riding Commission (ANRC) team. A member of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference, Sweet Briar equestrians also compete in the ODAC championship horse show held in the region annually. And for students who don’t necessarily want a team experience but wish to compete independently, Sweet Briar coaches get their students to several rated and unrated competitions throughout the region each year and boarding is available for student-owned horses. For those who wish to work in the horse industry following graduation, a certificate program in equine studies is offered as well.