Though the board may think Sweet Briar is dead, like the phoenix, the Vixen shall rise again.
Yesterday morning, I got a message from one of my wife’s classmates, Joan Dabney Clickner (’91). She said she was going to send a letter to the board, and she asked if I had a list of board members and their addresses. I didn’t have the list, but I knew exactly where to find it, so I sent it to her.
Joan messaged me again last night on Facebook:
“I wanted to let you know that I sent my letter to five board members and David Breneman wrote me back to thank me for my “thoughtful” letter and said he was going to have it forwarded to the entire Board of Trustees!”
That was all it took for me to ask to see it. After reading it, I knew it had to be posted for everyone to see. She gave me permission to post it here:
April 21, 2015
If you’ve read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, you’ll remember Darcy writes Elizabeth Bennett a letter at the height of their anger toward one another. He explains himself. That letter is a turning point in their relationship, and while they are not immediately friends it is the beginning of a better foundation and ultimately a happy ending. It is my hope that this letter is such a turning point for the Board and Sweet Briar community. Like Darcy’s letter, mine is rather long, but I hope you will give me the respect of reading the entire thing, as Elizabeth did. Darcy’s letter undid some of Elizabeth’s assumptions and this made all the difference. The key, though, was that she was willing to consider a new truth. Please consider mine.
Last week Saving Sweet Briar, Inc. was granted a temporary injunction, which as you know (despite Jones’s spin) is a major victory legal for us. Injunctions such as this are not handed out unless there is a strong likelihood of winning. Sweet Briar College presented no evidence at the hearing, and we are confident that the facts behind the attempted closure will come to light and we will keep our beloved college open. Then we will begin the long but welcome rebuilding process where we strengthen the best traditions of Sweet Briar, get rid of what isn’t working, and add what has been found to help other women’s colleges succeed in the new millennium.
I am a Sweet Briar graduate from the class of 1991. I also grew up on campus the daughter of English professor Ross Dabney; I was physically around Sweet Briar about 18 years, even attending the nursery school and kindergarten on campus as a little girl. The Board’s decision to close Sweet Briar has been one of the most devastating events of my life, and as you were one of those involved in it, I hope you’ll give me a few minutes to share my thoughts about all of this. My hope is that my sharing will help you and not be simply a rant. I hope not to rant; I hope to enlighten.
My father passed away this past November –I don’t know if you ever had a chance to meet him. Anyone on campus between 1973 and 1998 has vivid memories of Mr. Dabney and at least one of his dogs, who always came to class with him and slept with their chins on the students’ feet. One positive thing about your decision to close Sweet Briar – I have had an opportunity to connect with alumnae and hear their stories about how they loved my father and how he changed their lives. Those stories have been gifts for me. But because I lost him so recently (to Alzheimer’s) I feel this attempted closure more painfully. A third of his life he devoted to bettering Sweet Briar, and this wholly avoidable situation is sheer agony for me. I cannot let it stand.
When my father died the family was at peace because he had suffered so long from a cruel terminal illness. In Sweet Briar’s case the college has health problems, yes, but is not terminal. It is not Sweet Briar’s time to die, so no one is at peace about it. After five years of Parker’s leadership, Sweet Briar was indeed sick. I have spoken with faculty and staff, and many are beaten down from those years. It was a time of fear and darkness, a true Reign of Terror, college-style. I don’t know if you are aware of this. Faculty and staff lived in fear of arbitrary terminations (which did happen). Meanwhile, no capital campaign, no Dean of Admissions for over two years, no Director of Development. This is ironic, considering Parker was chosen over a more likeable applicant for her fundraising experience. A cheap food contractor was chosen. Dell parties were ended, and there was generally less joy. But hot pink banners were everywhere, and expensively marketed catch phrases (such as the cringe-worthy “Think is for girls”). Have you seen the high priced, ridiculous music video Parker paid for? “She’s a Sweet Briar woman” depicts slow motion shots of riding boots getting zipped, feet being waggled in the lake, toes wiggling on a diving platform. This is how Parker thought we needed to attract women to Sweet Briar in the new millennium: appeal to them with silly phrases, bright colors, music videos of slow motion feet. Intelligent girls came to Sweet Briar despite the cheesy marketing, not because of it.
It seems to me Parker did not believe in our product: Good professors, single-sex classrooms, beautiful campus, strong alumnae network. Or she didn’t have faith in young women today (thinking like Jimmy Jones that no modern woman would attend a college because it is rural and single-sex but in spite of that). In a country of 300 million, of course it is possible to attract 800 women who want to spend four years in a bucolic environment readying themselves for exciting careers. Cities and boys can wait. I am so tired of the argument the college keeps repeating that rural schools single sex colleges can’t survive. They can if they’re marketed correctly. I spoke with an alumna who used to be approached by the college every year to help recruit students. During the Parker era that stopped. This alumna even called the college to ask what had changed and was told recruitment was now mostly handled via e-mail. That is a huge error – the face to face recruitment of students for a place like Sweet Briar is vital (meeting a Sweet Briar graduate sells the school, and costs the college next to nothing). Aside from purchasing a few brochures and videos (we need a new one, not the horrible music video — one that shows students, faculty and alumnae actually speaking in their own voices), alumnae recruitment efforts are basically free. I see future volunteer recruitment chapters around the country, connected to the college but grassroots, making sure girls in their area are given a chance to hear about Sweet Briar. If we have 550 or so students now (despite dreadful marketing and almost no recruitment), of course we can attract 250 more (to meet that magic number of 800).
I’ll tell you a quick story: My son goes to a rural, all-boys middle school (in Crozet, Virginia). While clean and tidy, the building hasn’t been updated in 50 years. There are no bells and whistles, just good teachers, good leadership, sports and healthy food. In today’s tough economy, his school is actually growing and thriving. It has a waiting list. Marketing consists of parent word of mouth, a simple video and a few post cards. The school keeps growing because it has a good product and the consumers are telling others. This can be the case of Sweet Briar, too, if we stop basically apologizing for it and share it proudly (face to face) for what it is: All women, small and rural, excellent teachers, excellent career placement. The end. Alumnae telling prospective students why they should attend Sweet Briar in their own words.
You may think we do not have a good product anymore. I agree that due of Parker’s leadership something does feel off. Sad. The peppy slogans feel a bit hollow. But I see this as all fully recoverable, as do the thousands who have been fighting night and day to save Sweet Briar. There is a strong bed of coals here; add dry firewood and it will burst into flames again. Sweet Briar’s heart is intact. I have seen it in the hours and hours spent on Facebook and in person with students, faculty and alumnae. The Sweet Briar you love is still alive and can live on.
I see this crisis as having helped in a way, like a mini health crisis preventing a fatal one. We didn’t know the trouble our school was in. We saw the fancy library and figured everything was okay. We didn’t know Parker’s reign had put the college into a downward spiral (in fact, just last April she wrote in the Alumnae Magazine something about its being poised for success). The March 3 announcement woke up everyone who loves Sweet Briar, shook us out of our complacency.
Truthfully, I had found myself distanced from the college for some time – I didn’t feel I fit anymore. I saw it going in a different direction from me. But during this crisis I have seen that what I was reacting to was the disease, not the college. The cheap marketing tricks, the coldness of Parker, the sadness of the professors, the hollowness of a strategy built by consultants instead of people who know Sweet Briar. I recognize now our dear school has been asphyxiating. And now thousands of us now are rushing to revive her, thanks to the closure announcement bringing her illness to our attention.
I don’t know if you’re aware, but there are thousands of us spending literally all our free time on this (and working late at night and early morning to create even more time for it). I calculate that I personally have spent at least 200 hours in the past 6 weeks on it – it’s like I have a second job; when I’m not at my paying job I’m doing all I can for Sweet Briar. Others spend even more time, others spend less, all cheerfully offered volunteer hours. We joke about how dusty our houses are – no time for housework, we’re saving Sweet Briar! One alumna I met, who’s actually a nurse, said she would fight to the end with everything she had, wearing her fingernails down to dirty, bleeding nubs. I knew immediately how she felt. I cannot sit idle as long as I know I might do something to help.
The things going on to save Sweet Briar include fund raising and legal of course, but also working groups to rebuild the college. Within days of the announcement these working groups had organized, alumnae organically organizing based on their areas of expertise and interests. The question asked immediately, was, “What does Sweet Briar need to be a strong, supple entity in the 21st century?” According to a recent publication by Harvard Business School, women’s colleges are expected to produce the world’s next leaders – so we know the college is still “relevant”. We also had a forensic accountant (whose specific expertise is in looking at college and university finances) take a detailed look at the books; he reported that with prudent management of our money the college will recover. We are working on what that prudent management will look like.
The alumnae are awake. We are engaged. Now that we know what is going on we will always keep Sweet Briar’s health on our radar. We were busy living our lives and entrusted Sweet Briar’s care to others, but in the wake of this potential disaster we each want to remain personally responsible forever. We owe her that. It’s like finding out your baby was being shaken by the nanny. You didn’t know the caregiver was abusing your child but now you know and you’ll never be so complacent again.
Alumnae connections are stronger than ever. Thanks to social media, we are incredibly close now. I wish you could see us on Facebook and Twitter. While the situation that brought us together is awful, there is such a cheerful atmosphere among us. Efficient, selfless teamwork, no one looking for credit, our efforts all about saving Sweet Briar and supporting each other. And if anyone makes a peep about a need, they are responded to immediately by at least a dozen people. I’m immensely proud and honored to be part of this group of hard-working, solid, bright people. Stronger alumnae networks are being built during this battle; this will of course be a benefit to students seeking internships or jobs.
Regarding donors, I know the Board came to the conclusion that there was not deep enough donor support to stay open. I have not been approached by the college for a donation more than perhaps twice in 20 years, and while I always wondered why that was, I didn’t bother to find out and didn’t donate. I figured the wealthier alumnae had it covered. But this experience has changed my relationship to Sweet Briar. I appreciate her more, and see myself responsible for her future, for the rest of my life, even if my finances are relatively tight. As soon as the option is available, I plan to set up automatic monthly PayPal debits from my checking account. A relatively easy amount to part with monthly, $50, turns into $600 annually. If just 7000 people donate this amount monthly, that will be $4.2 million per year from just the small donors. Such a constant, reliable trickle will be immensely useful to the college, in addition to what big donors are able to contribute. Much better than relying totally on big donors. You probably have heard Saving Sweet Briar Inc. has received $10 million in pledges; this is before our 501(c)3 status is in place. This was all raised in just 6 weeks via grassroots fund raising. Once Sweet Briar has been saved we anticipate much larger contributions for rebuilding the college.
I don’t know if anything I’ve said has moved or surprised you. I don’t know if you’re so dug in that nothing will touch you. I have to try, though. I feel like saying this to you: There are so few of you and so many of us. This is the deep, deep will and desire of thousands. We do not see what you are doing as “closing with dignity” – did you know professors who own houses at Sweet Briar will have to sell their homes back to the college since they do not own the land? That people like the recently widowed Susan Piepho will lose the beautiful house she and Lee built 25 year ago? Did you know that aging professors will be tossed out in a brutal academic job market? Did you know Amherst will be losing its financial and cultural heart, and will be an impoverished wide place in the road if Sweet Briar closes? Did you know that six weeks after alumnae got the news they are still praying fervently, begging God to help them save their alma mater? Did you know current students are sobbing in the hallways, still, weeks later? And hanging banners, and fighting alongside alumnae and professors to save Sweet Briar. You may think it’s totally appropriate to close, and have a slew of figures to point to (We have another slew of figures, why is yours more trustworthy than ours?) But so many want to keep trying. We believe Sweet Briar was never given a chance. I have a houseplant that is shriveled up and dying. You know why? Because I don’t water it (I’ve been too busy with saving Sweet Briar!). Sweet Briar was not watered for years. No wonder it looks bad. We are here to water it. We want to and we have the means, thousands of us.
What is the harm in giving us the chance? What is the grave, hideous possibility you feel we are avoiding in closing immediately, not even giving alumnae a year or two to raise money, retool tuition schemes, restart recruitment? Let us have that chance! Let us risk that dreadful future you see!
I estimate conservatively that 300,000 hours have been volunteered in the past 6 weeks. That’s 25 hours per week times six weeks times 2000 alumnae, faculty and students. If you think that’s outrageous we can scale it back to only 200,000 hours. It could be more, a lot more. My first estimate was 450,000 hours. How long did the Board and President Jones spend determining the college wasn’t viable? I hear about a pitiful paper survey mailed to 200 alumnae. I hear about consultants determining we need an endowment rivalling that of UVA. But you never contacted the alumnae en masse. An online survey could have been put on the Sweet Briar website so that every alumna could have weighed in. Every alumna could have logged in her opinion on what direction to take, her particular donor ability, her level of volunteer interest. This information could have been turned into an action plan to strengthen the college. So easy.
I don’t know if you’re considering my plea at all, but for sheer effort alone I believe those who are part of the Save Sweet Briar effort have earned a rethink. I have heard some of the Board is interested in a revote regarding closing Sweet Briar. In light of all the evidence presented at last week’s hearing from forensic accountants and college turnaround experts don’t you think the college deserves that?
I realize this is getting very long. I will wrap up soon.
I imagine you’ve read or seen The Lord of the Rings. In the second book, The Two Towers, we meet Theoden, king of Rohan. He has been poisoned by Wormtongue, who whispers debilitating falsehoods in his ear, day after day, year after year. Theoden is depressed, and literally crusted over. His eyes are dead, he does not care. He is willing to let his kingdom be destroyed. Gandalf sees what is going on and drives Wormtongue out, and Theoden starts to recover immediately. He gradually returns to his old self and is a mighty fighter and leader once more. I see a parallel with Sweet Briar in this story; the college, a collective Theoden, has become depressed from listening to a collective Wormtongue. It has given up. From this sad, sick perspective, closing seems the only option. Like Theoden thinking there was no hope for his kingdom. But the scales are cast from his eyes and a new world of possibility is revealed, and the same is happening for Sweet Briar.
I would hope this is GOOD NEWS to you. Good to know that the college you love is alive and can return to full health. Good news to know that what seemed fatal is not. Sometimes it is good news to see you are wrong. It is good to find out in a second opinion that you do not have cancer – the first doctor was wrong.
Please consider my words. I may not have a slew of figures at my fingertips, but I have instincts. The fact that I have not been as close to the college as you have might mean I can see more clearly. I have not been listening to Wormtongue. I only have a few Board members’ names; would you do me the favor of sending this to the other Board members? I would really appreciate getting to say this to all of them. If any of you are considering a revote, I beg you to do it soon. How much better for the Board to decide to reverse its decision than to have it decided by the courts. Infinitely better. And the sooner this is resolved the fewer students and faculty will already be gone.
Thank you for your time, and I welcome any Board members to call or write me.
Joan Dabney Clickner, Sweet Briar College Class of 1991
Well said Joan, well said. We can only hope your words do not fall upon deaf ears (or blind eyes as the case my be, this being the Internet and all).