Messages with heart wrenching stories from Sweet Briar students, faculty and parents come to me with greater frequency with each passing day. The latest one made my blood boil.
What’s your favorite spring break memory from college? Take yourself back to that moment and rewind the clock to the beginning of the month before that trip you were so excited to go on. Now imagine that your college tells you they are closing and this is your last semester and you need to scramble to find a new college…and application deadlines at other colleges for next fall have already closed…and all your credits may not transfer to other institutions, and your financial aid probably won’t either. The college is so financially strapped that there is no possible way to come up with the $35 million in operating expenses needed for one more year, even though they have an $84 million endowment[footnote]Wait…isn’t 35 smaller than 84? Hmm…[/footnote]. And sorry faculty – we know this is past the point of you having a chance to get hired on at another college since the hiring cycle has come and gone as well. Best of luck to you on finding a temporary position somewhere.
That is what this March was like for students, faculty and staff at Sweet Briar College.
But now, as if unnecessarily kicking all the students to the curb wasn’t enough, KSB (Killing Sweet Briar) has decided they need to screw the students over just a little more. This was in an email that was forwarded to me:
My daughter called the registrar and was told that if her bill was over $1,000.00 they would, most likely, hold her transcripts. Attached is the letter sent to her regarding the balance owed.
I guess this is their way of exacting money to use to close the college since the court barred them from using endowment funds to close.
The letter says she owes $1,150 It may not seem like much – just $150 to get to the $1,000 mark, right? Yep. Just $150…in addition to the $500 deposit they had to put down to get a spot reserved at another college, the cost of going and visiting that campus – which is three time zones away – as well as visiting a couple of other colleges to make sure it would be a good fit, and of course they have to plan on how to pay for travel to get the student to that new college and also get her situated this coming fall. Her mother also has had some serious health problems. Do you wonder why the balance is so “small”? This student is really bright had multiple scholarships that covered almost everything. Almost…
So here this student and her family sit. They need $500 to hold the spot at the new college, and another $150 to get the balance down to a level where Sweet Briar will release her transcript, as she is only conditionally admitted to the new college pending receipt of her official transcript from Sweet Briar.
This morning I shared this story with my wife (Aelica Ingenthron Orsi ’91). I told her I was going to quote her very appropriate response:
So they can break their deal with the students, but the students can’t break their deal with them? Those people need to go f**k themselves.
Well put dear. Do as I say, not as I do. There’s some stellar leadership for you.[footnote]And by “stellar” I mean completely hypocritical and devoid of compassion.[/footnote]
Paul Rice, the Chairman of Sweet Briar’s board of directors is said to be worth around $400 million. He gave UVA so much money that they named a building after him.[footnote]My grandfather was chairman of the board of directors at Arkansas College many years ago. He gave them a handsome sum of money but told them they could not name anything after him until after he was dead. That’s the difference between doing something for noble reasons and doing something for ego.[/footnote] He could cut a check to Sweet Briar and pay off that $9.2 million bond that is creating the liquidity crisis without batting an eye. I have no idea how much they paid Jimmy Jones to come in and be the hatchet man to close the college, but the last president of the college was paid $333,500 in 2013, and the VP of Finance was paid $192,000.
These men clearly have no concept what $650 means to some families. That is a house payment or rent, groceries for the month, a few outfits for their daughter for the next season, or a plane ticket to actually get her to the new college. To this family, it is a lot of damn money and it is money they don’t know how to come up with right now.
Kicked to the curb by Sweet Briar on false pretenses. Accepted, but short the $500 to lock the spot at the new college. $150 short on paying the Sweet Briar bill down enough to get the transcript released to the new college to complete her enrollment.
If this is Sweet Briar’s version of winding things down “responsibly” and helping the students they have put in this awful situation, I can’t begin to imagine what winding down in a cold, inconsiderate and heartless manner would look like to them.
Holla! Holla! to the Alumnae Angels who paid that student’s deposit and didn’t think twice about it. They have done that for many, many students screwed by this impossible situation the board created.
This really pissed me off too, so guess what I did? That student’s balance is now below the $1,000 threshold for releasing a transcript. Yep. Using the account information in the letter I was forwarded, I paid $150.01 out of my own pocket. Their balance is now $999.99, so you people who have no concept of what money means to regular people, you can now send that student’s transcript where it needs to go, and kindly kiss my ass.
To the powers at be at Sweet Briar, who in your world of magical unicorns dancing on rainbows somehow think you are acting responsibly:
You clearly do not believe in the product Sweet Briar has sold for 114 years. You utterly FAIL at leading by example. The women you graduated, the women you taught to LEAD, the women you tell to go out and stand as EXAMPLES for the world to see, the women who are living testaments to Indiana Fletcher Williams’ vision? THEY are the ones who know how to do the right thing. THEY are the ones who not only know how to take care of students in bad situations, but take immediate action to make sure somebody does the right thing. You could learn a lot from these women whom you continue to turn a deaf ear to.
I, along with many faculty, staff, and thousands of alumnae, hope the Virginia Supreme Court and Judge Updike hand you all your walking papers in very short order. You could disclose all the information you based your decision on for all the stakeholders to review. Instead, you put a wall around yourselves and hide behind attorneys and non-disclosure agreements. Rumor has it some of you want off the board. I guess you can’t stomach the backlash from the decision you made. If that’s the case, you should call for a meeting to revisit that vote, as you clearly don’t believe in it enough to stick around to see it through.
It’s a damn shame your pride and egos are so big. You would rather make headlines by being forced out by a judge rather than acknowledge that mistakes were made, the decision close was based in part on incorrect information, you never asked your primary stakeholders for help, and that there is, in fact, a way forward. That will be your legacy. Unless you own a lumber yard, you probably should not plan on being asked to sit on any boards in the future.
At tomorrow’s mediation, you could save a little face by acknowledging those things and inviting those who not only think, but know the college can be saved to do what you cannot.
It is called leading.
It is best done by example.