Sweet Briar College Closure: FAQ’s on what it may mean

Sweet Briar College is a small private liberal arts college for women located in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It has 94 full-time faculty, 32 part-time faculty, 177 full-time staff and 47 part-time staff–and a long tradition of shared governance. On March 3rd, 2015 the President and Board of Directors declared a state of financial exigency and announced their decision to close the college at the end of August, effectively firing all faculty and staff.

WAS the faculty consulted beforehand regarding the possibility that the college might close?
NO. The faculty was shut out of usual channels of shared governance and kept entirely in the dark.

HAS Sweet Briar’s Board revealed the data on which it based its decision?
NO: The Board has claimed the relevant reports and discussions of possible mergers are proprietary or are restricted by non-disclosure agreements. Financial data and projections based on enrollment and retention patterns that have been shared with the faculty are either flawed or incomplete or both.

IS SBC is in bad financial trouble?
NO. According to an experienced auditor testifying under oath, financially SBC is in the “middle of the pack” of private, non-profit colleges in Virginia. Steps should be taken to stabilize, not close, the college.

ARE Sweet Briar’s enrollments in decline?
NO. Overall, enrollments are stable. Declines in the last couple of years are arguably attributable to the Board’s refusal to hire a professional admissions director and to a flawed recruitment strategy.

WHY did the Board think enrollment was in decline?
See Dan Gottlieb, “Enrollment, and How Moody’s Got it Wrong: The Sweet Briar Story, Part 1,” and “Enrollment, Race, and the Unfortunate Case of Dr. Sax’s Sample Bias: The Sweet Briar Story, Part 2,” at http://blog.jayorsi.com/sweet-briar/

ARE the college’s debts larger than its endowment?
NO. The unrestricted endowment is indeed smaller than the outstanding bond debt. However, the same legal procedure being used by the Board to release a portion of the restricted endowment to close the college could have been used to reduce debt, but was not.

WERE the other stakeholders (students, alumnae, donors, parents) informed about the college’s impending closure?
NO. All stakeholders heard at the same time as the faculty did.

IS Sweet Briar College closing because it is a small, rural, women’s liberal arts college?
NO: SBC is closing solely because the Board of Directors made the decision to close the college.

WHY does the Board of SBC think it can act without consulting the faculty or other stakeholders?
The Board believes, and the Virginia Attorney General agrees, that SBC is a non-profit private corporation, subject only to the Virginia Non-Stock Corporation Act which prevents a court from second-guessing ANY good-faith business decision made by them, and to the Uniform Prudential Management of Institutional Funds Act, which does not allow intervention by college stakeholders.

COULD YOUR BOARD DO THIS TO YOUR Virginia PRIVATE COLLEGE OR UNIVERSITY: If the VA circuit judge’s ruling–that private institutions of higher education are non-stock corporations–prevails, YES.
COULD THIS HAPPEN TO PRIVATE INSTITUTIONS OF HIGHER EDUCATION OUTSIDE OF VIRGINIA: It depends on your state’s laws. If your institution is financially challenged, however, there is cause for concern.

National Adjuncts Walkout Day

A few weeks ago, the first National Adjuncts Walkout Day was staged, to draw attention to the crisis in US higher education: that today 75% of all teaching is being done by underpaid faculty who are not on the tenure-track, and have no guarantee of academic freedom or job security.  This situation has evolved over the last 30 years, when 75% of all teaching was done by tenured and tenure-track faculty, primarily because state legislatures have chosen to cut support to higher education.  Higher education used to be supported or sponsored by the states; now it is simply located in the states.

The Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, the New Faculty Majority, and the American Association of University Professors are fighting to raise awareness in the general public of this dangerous trend, which is undermining the integrity of our system of higher education.  Students graduating from college today have little sense of the fact that when they have kids in twenty years or so who want to go to college, not only will the cost be out of reach, there will be such a two tiered system that only a very small elite will have access to a genuine education.  The Ivy league schools and the small private liberal arts colleges with enormous endowments will continue to operate, but for the majority of people, on-line learning (no genuine interaction with professors) will be the norm.  Unless citizens get involved in demanding that states return to the commitment to higher ed as a public good, funded by the public, things are looking dismal for the future of higher ed in the US.

Thoughts on V Bush

The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not
seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue
to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream
was. — Bottom, Act iv scene 1

Vannevar Bush’s comment early in the piece about the fact that we now (1945) produce for $.30 each hundreds of millions of thermionic radio tubes, which get packaged and tossed around, and yet they work when they are plugged in –is one observation that caught my eye. Already in his day, this amazing productivity was being overlooked and taken for granted, people were already just living in that transformed world and going about the pursuit of the most mundane goals. Realizing that everything we take for granted rests on the smooth functioning of parts, circuitry, grids, networks, etc., that we don’t know how to make ourselves, makes one worry sometimes about the future: how little will it take to disrupt and destroy all of this?
In section 6, he speculates on the Memex, a mechanical attempt to store and retrieve information more in terms of association than in terms of indexing. Obviously a crucial insight in making retrieval more efficient. A staggering problem civilization has given itself is to have succeeded so massively at the task of knowing things; too much is known for anyone to be able to know it, or even know where the accounts of it are, or how to find the traces of them. Maybe the web has effectively solved that problem; there’s no doubt that we have access to the tiniest items of knowledge or human experience today, and that it makes our lives unbelievably comfortable and easy in comparison to all past ages and even to most of the present. The high-mindedness of his article, of his concern and vision, seems almost a lost possibility today: we’ve succeeded so well in storing and retrieving that the pace at which things are invented, produced, consumed, stored, etc., has seemingly gone beyond 24/7. (I recently saw the expression “25/7” and wondered how far that sentiment will evolve: I often miss the days of the “news cycle,” when you pretty much had to wait until 6 pm to find out what had happened in the world today.) All this information, all these goods and services, and no time to think deeply –and hardly even the inclination, as our mechanism of externalized memory reshapes or “rewires” the intellectual capacity of  we who depend on it.