Some sad news in higher education this week: Sweet Briar College, a women’s liberal arts college in Virginia, announced that it was closing at the end of this semester because of "insurmountable financial challenges."
Sweet Briar has an endowment of more than $80 million, but its board decided to close the school nonetheless. Board chair Paul G. Rice said, "We voted to act now to cease academic operations responsibly, allowing us to place students at other academic institutions, to assist faculty and staff with the transition, and to conduct a more orderly winding down of academic operations."
In a press release, the college president James F. Jones Jr. stated:
“The board, some key alumnae, and I have worked diligently to find a solution to the challenges Sweet Briar faces. This work led us to the unfortunate conclusion that there are two key realities that we could not change: the declining number of students choosing to attend small, rural, private liberal arts colleges and even fewer young women willing to consider a single-sex education, and the increase in the tuition discount rate that we have to extend to enroll each new class is financially unsustainable.”
This story has shocked the higher ed community. The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed have both published multiple articles about the announcement, and the story has also been picked up by major news sources such as Forbes and the New York Times. You can read a few of the stories here, here, and here.
What implications might this have for theological schools? After all, many theological schools have much in common with Sweet Briar: small enrollments, rural locations, niche programs. And Sweet Briar's endowment of more than $80 million is something of which many theological schools can only dream.
At what point is it wise to not only close a program, but to close a school? Is this a one-off, or is it the beginning of a trend in higher education?
What do you think? Was this a brave decision? Or unwise? How do we balance the sometimes harsh realities of today’s changing environment with our sense of call, purpose, and mission?