Sweet Briar College graduated what pessimists say is its last graduating class ever. Thousands beg to differ. Teresa Tomlinson, Mayor of Columbus, Georgia, and a 1987 graduate of Sweet Briar gave a remarkable address to the graduates. A video of her address is at the bottom of this post. I’ve never been one to intentionally listen to a commencement speaker, but this powerful speech is well worth listening to.
One particular passage jumped out at me:
We are so proud of this graduating class of Sweet Briar College. We charge you today to take all you have learned and experienced and make the world regret we ever put Sweet Briar College in jeopardy. Make strangers stop and say: “if only we had more like her.” Let us today vow to support women’s education at every turn so that none fall victim to easy, false narratives of predestined failure. And, as to those who have led us to this regrettable point, let us endeavor to forgive them – forgive their lack of transparency, their lack of inclusiveness, their lack of perseverance, and their failure of faith -‐ because, truly, they know not what they have done.
That passage stuck out because a few weeks ago someone sent me a letter they had sent to Sweet Briar’s Board of Directors. He said I could publish it if I wanted to. I do want to publish it, because this letter sent to be by a stranger embodies fully on all levels “if only we had more like her.” He requested to have his name withheld, so I replaced his name with John Smith:
April 27, 2015
Dear Board Member:
My name is John Smith and I am writing to you regarding the situation at Sweet Briar College (SBC). I learned from its website that you are a member of the Board of Directors (BOD) and was provided your contact information from an alumna. I have come to know and love Sweet Briar and believe that if it were to close something immeasurable would be lost. It is my sincere hope that you will find time to read and seriously consider what I have written here.
You likely have some sort of strong affinity with Sweet Briar otherwise you would not have volunteered to be on its BOD. It must have been an extremely difficult decision you made when you voted to close in February. However, new information has been revealed that shows the overall financial situation is not as precarious as what was presented to you originally. Additionally, it has been demonstrated that previous President Jo Ellen Parker’s enrollment strategy was based on what appears to be significantly flawed data (Sax report) that harbored a pronounced hidden sample bias. This led to incorrect enrollment trend-analyses which partly explains why her approach failed and SBC has been thus afflicted. The tuition discounting model she encouraged also contributed to the problem and has since been discredited. I strongly believe that if you were to see firsthand the new data and analysis (especially by SBC Professor Gottlieb) you may arrive at a different conclusion than closing the college. I also believe few persons if any would fault you for your original decision because you made it in light of the only information presented to you at the time. Examining the newer data, analysis, alternatives, and reconsidering the closure decision in their light would simply be the pursuit of truth, one of the goals of an institution of higher learning such as Sweet Briar. I believe members of the Board are owed this pursuit of truth as well as students, faculty, staff, alumnae, and greater Amherst County. Please do not let this opportunity pass you by; it is not too late and there is still time to prevent possible deep regret later, but time is of the essence. Additionally, regarding the bond debt, various financing options exist as illustrated by how Birmingham-Southern College successfully addressed its own similar problem. Its past success and current offer to help Sweet Briar indicates alternatives to closing do in fact exist. Please, I therefore ask you to reconvene and reconsider your vote.
I used to work in defense and intelligence as a research scientist (physics and mathematics) and supervised college graduates new to the workforce. I was pleased to have a recent Sweet Briar College graduate on my team; I also worked with women and men graduates from Goucher, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, and Wellesley among others. Understandably most new graduates have difficulty getting started in such an intellectually demanding field. However, the SBC woman was different for not only was she better than most in her subject matter expertise (and second to none) she was also discriminately better in terms of identifying and pursuing new opportunities, presenting to technical and non-technical groups, taking the lead on projects, and teaching complicated mathematical methods to stakeholders of mathematical AND non-mathematical backgrounds. This latter point was crucial for executing and growing our enterprise because not every decision-maker was conversant with advanced mathematics. She also possessed what I can only term an “amiable fearlessness” when presented with new opportunities. I had not seen anything like it. When one day I asked her about why she was so accelerated in this regard, she told me in no uncertain terms that while she had earned an advanced degree in mathematics, it was her Sweet Briar education that taught her how to lead. She especially referenced the student-teacher interaction methods the college uses, the small class sizes, animated discussions, and expectations to involve oneself robustly. Her contributions were far above the norm and literally made the difference numerous times for people’s lives on the front lines of our global enterprise, not to mention moving the research and development forward. We desperately need more people like her in our field. Additionally, I have met other Sweet Briar graduates and noticed the similar profile in professional accomplishments, advanced degrees, and can-do attitude and personality. It seems to me that SBC is not just another liberal arts or women’s college but something quite special that I think (after having visited and toured myself) is truly unique, and that which is truly unique is irreplaceable.
When closure was announced in March I did not know the situation at SBC was so dire. Had I known I would have donated to help in past years because what I saw from my team member was uncommon to say the least. I therefore ask you now, please give me and all of us (especially the alumnae) who want to help the chance to do so now that we know what has transpired. Together we all can keep the college open, for certainly professions in addition to mine need the people SBC produces, especially those fields with pronounced ethical dimensions such as medicine, law, etc.
As an analogy, please consider the scenario where an ill person visits a physician and is diagnosed with a serious condition: the physician says the person’s condition signifies he or she most likely will not survive and suggests to get his or her affairs in order. Would anyone in that situation not seek a second opinion? Such may indicate that new innovations in surgery could not only save the person but with proper care, medicine and maintenance he or she could live a normal life. I think the situation at Sweet Briar is similar because only one opinion and so-called plausible recommendation was proffered to you. I implore you to seek a second opinion from these other knowledgeable professionals who have been suggesting ways to save her. They possess an inordinate amount of brainpower and experience and are forwarding new data, knowledge, and approaches that can be leveraged to keep the college open, strengthen her, and allow her to produce more outstanding and exemplary graduates like the one I worked with who not only make a measurable difference in the world, but a profound one. I therefore respectfully ask you to please reconvene, reconsider, and re-vote to rescind closure in order to help this wonderful college move forward successfully into the future.
Here is Teresa Tomlinson’s address to the 2015 graduating class: