Thoughts on the Closing of Sweet Briar College

March 12, 2015

A message from President Helen Drinan

Just a week ago, we learned the surprising news that Sweet Briar College plans to close down completely as of August 25, 2015. In the aftermath of such an announcement, the commentary has been wide-ranging. Some question the decision, while others praise it; some even say it will not happen because the alumnae will not tolerate it. Many have speculated on the "story behind the story," that is, what really caused the Board of Trustees to make such a quick and radical decision?

We may wait a very long time to understand how Sweet Briar arrived at that painful moment, and I know I will be touching on the Sweet Briar story several times this spring as we understand more. For the moment, I want only to reflect on the sadness many of us feel about this event.

When I was an undergraduate, I was a French major and planned to do my junior year abroad. From the day I first planned this, I knew I would be going on the Sweet Briar Junior Year Abroad Program because it was the only way a Mount Holyoke student could go to France. In addition, it was extremely well reputed, and everyone who had gone before me raved about how the experience in France unfolded.

As things happen in all our lives, I did not end up going to France (I got engaged, married, and finished at Mount Holyoke in 3 1/2 years.) So, I never actually experienced the Sweet Briar program personally, but I always carried the thought of what might have been as a dear memory, and the halo effect of that included a college I had never even seen.

When I first heard the news of Sweet Briar's closing, I really thought it must be a mistake. How could this be so suddenly true? Even today, they are known for that same junior year abroad program I had planned to do. As the hours and then days passed, and the circumstances of the decision became better known, I began to accept the reality but started to consider the larger implications.

While I watch news of higher education with almost the same concern as I watch the world news, I was taken aback by the absolute and final nature of such a decision. And what I have been feeling in the days since then is very much a strong sense of identification with the faculty and staff of Sweet Briar. I know from personal experience that when a place, to which you have committed your life's work, your total energy, and your future, is no more, there is a psychological toll that takes years to abate. As I have read the stories of individual staff and faculty, I think about how each of us takes on a real life challenge not of our own making, and very literally how we survive such shocks to the human system.

When this happened in my life, I had a professional role as a member of the team that knew about the decision in advance, analogous to the Sweet Briar team who made the closing announcement. Even so, I returned to Boston from New York City after the public announcement and went straight to my office, not to my home. I sat in the seat I had occupied for so many years and cried alone. I remember that moment as if it were just five minutes ago because I recognized that my entire life would change dramatically from then on, and nothing quite that immediately life-changing had ever happened to me before. My employer was extremely generous to all of us who departed, providing us with career resources and significant financial support. Nonetheless, the psychological impact, including the profound sadness associated with major loss, lasted for years after the dust settled. I would never again knowingly choose to go into a situation where such an outcome was reasonably predictable.

I see the faculty and staff at Sweet Briar at the very beginning of this true grieving process. Many of their ties to Sweet Briar extend beyond employment, as a large number of employees live on campus. And they have yet to learn about severance and job finding support, so the anxiety level is high. It will be a hard path until August 25 when the college closes and the real challenges of finding new work become palpable.

Please do not think that I am not equally concerned about the students; I am. The difficulties for each year are unfathomable from my perspective as president of this College. How can an excited prospective first year work up the enthusiasm to restart the emotional college search process? And once sophomores have passed their ambivalence about their choice, justifying the proverbial "sophomore slump," what direction can they find with only months to go before the end of the year? I think the hardest hit may be the juniors, with the end of their college careers in sight and now needing to start somewhere else all over again. The seniors will at least get their degrees, but that is cold comfort for new alumnae. All in all, this is truly a tragedy for Sweet Briar and for those of us committed to women's education and the liberal arts.

What can we as a peer institution of higher education do to support the Sweet Briar community? It is hard to know what really is helpful, and many are trying to contribute as they can. I have written to Sweet Briar's president, offering a variety of options, knowing full well that the circumstances of their decision may make it hard to take everyone up on their offers. Yet, it is important that we offer, if only to bear witness to their hardship.

In future weeks, I would like to turn to some of the other issues the Sweet Briar closing raises, but for now I think it is important to recognize the moment and the reality of what is occurring. I am interested in any questions this event has raised for you so that I can gauge my future words accordingly.