In the Matter of Sweet Briar College

Sweet Briar 2 copy

Along with the OU expulsions, the big story in higher education over the last week or so is the surprise announcement that Sweet Briar College will be closing its doors at the end of this academic year. Although the college as an endowment somewhere near $90 million, declining enrollment at the all-womens’ college has led the trustees to conclude that there is no future for a single-sex school out in rural Virginia. Sweet Briar’s fate is being heralded as a harbinger of the coming collapse of the “higher education bubble” (Glenn ReynoldsTM), especially small liberal arts colleges, which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

But there is an amazing failure of imagination here—rooted in the institutional liberalism pervasive in higher ed—and a terrific opportunity for an educational entrepreneur.

One of the claims about why the college has no future is that its location is too remote from the attractions of urban civilization necessary for today’s students. Excuse me, but has anyone around Sweet Briar ever heard of Hillsdale College, which is much more remote than Sweet Briar, and yet thrives for the simple reason that it is self-consciously different (that is, conservative) from other liberal arts colleges.

So what if Sweet Briar had decided that instead of trying to compete head-to-head with Smith and Wellesley, they self-consciously set out to be the anti-Smith and anti-Wellesley? I have little doubt that a women’s college that advertised its deliberate rejection of the gender politics of “mainstream” womens’ educational institutions would have no shortage of applicants for admission.

This would have required an act of imagination on the part of Sweet Briar’s president, James F. Jones, Jr., and the trustees. But of course Jones is your typical mediocre liberal. This fragment from the Slate story gives away the whole game in one compact sentence:

Speaking with IHE, Sweet Briar College President James F. Jones Jr. lamented the closing of the college as a part of a broader change in “the diversity of American higher education.” Jones added, “The landscape is changing and becoming more vanilla.”

Becoming more vanilla”?  This is beyond idiotic even by the low standards of college presidents.  When Jones offers the telltale magic incantation “diversity of American higher education,” he means of course exactly the opposite: ritual conformity to the stifling doctrines of campus PC. If he wanted true “diversity” for Sweet Briar, he’d have broken from the crowd, and offered a different flavor than vanilla.

Beyond just conformity to leftist PC, Jones has a track record of hostility toward conservatives on campus. As Martin Morse Wooster explained in detail recently for the Pope Center, while president of Trinity College in Connecticut, Jones tried to hijack an endowment specifically created to support a professor and program in free enterprise:

Jones tried to divert the assets of the Davis Endowment to other purposes, including funding scholarships for foreign students. In October 2008, according to a 2009 article in the Wall Street Journal, Jones had a particularly angry meeting with Gunderson where he called Gunderson “a liar and a bully” and said that he would, in the future, personally approve all expenditures “down to a box of paperclips.”

By this time, Gunderson had reported Jones to the Connecticut Attorney General’s Office, which regulates charities in that state. In February 2009, the attorney general’s office issued a ruling that declared that there was no evidence that Shelby Cullom Davis wanted either the college or his family to use the endowment’s income for any purpose “other than the study and promotion of the economic theories of the free enterprise system.”

In addition, the attorney general’s office found that Trinity College had illegally diverted $191,337 from the Davis Endowment to pay for an internship program. The regulators ordered Trinity College to restore the money to the endowment.

For the next four years, according to Gunderson, the battle over the Davis Endowment was “a stalemate,” with Jones proposing various schemes for diverting the endowment’s assets and the Connecticut attorney general’s office vetoing them.

So Jones is an especially low-rent form of academic administrator. Then there’s this little footnote:

The issue was ultimately resolved when Jones left Trinity College after the 2013-14 academic year, a year before his contract expired. Jones’s downfall was the result of a plan he announced in October 2012, which would have forced all fraternities and sororities to be co-ed by 2016 with no more than 55 percent of the members being of one gender. The plan earned Trinity a “red light” from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which condemned the move as severely restricting student rights to free association. Alumni contributions plummeted in reaction to the plan.

Why Sweet Briar thought Jones was the answer to their problems is hard to fathom, though I suspect the soft-headedness of most college trustees explains it.

Meanwhile, the Sweet Briar campus is spectacular, and raises the obvious idea: why not form a consortium of conservative philanthropists to buy Sweet Briar and reopen it as a self-consciously conservative college—possibly coed? I’m sure there’s room for another Hillsdale. There are plenty of excellent conservative faculty available. In fact, there’s a buyers market for good conservative faculty: ask any of the few conservative deans scattered here and there, and they’ll tell you that the ideological discrimination against conservatives in higher ed has enabled them to get first rate people at market rates.

Yes, I gather there is a thicket of legal tangles around Sweet Briar, but with the alternative being a defunct institution and a vacant 3,300 acre campus, I think Virginia courts could find a workaround.

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