February 16, 2018

Sudden Sweet Briar Closure Leaves Library in Limbo

(Editor’s Note: Virginia’s attorney general announced June 20 that Sweet Briar College will remain open for the 2015–16 academic year. The alumnae group Saving Sweet Briar has pledged to raise $12 million toward operating costs, and the college will release restrictions on $16 million in endowments. At least 13 members of the current board of 23 will be replaced by trustees, and the board will then appoint a new president. See the Chronicle of Higher Education for more details about the agreement.)

An architect's rendering of the newly renovated library at Sweet Briar College

An architect’s rendering of the newly renovated library at Sweet Briar College

Sweet Briar College, a 114-year-old women’s liberal arts school in Amherst County, VA, counts among its graduates author Elaine Dundy, class of 1943; film critic Molly Haskell, class of 1961; and U.S. ambassador to Hungary Colleen Bell, class of 1989. No doubt members of the class of 2015 will go on to great things as well. But there may be no class of 2016. On March 3, interim president James F. Jones Jr. announced that the college would close after the summer session, a statement that shocked most of the Sweet Briar community.

As a result of what the school website describes as “insurmountable financial challenges,” the college’s board of directors voted unanimously at a February 28 meeting to shutter the school, citing declining enrollment and an endowment that dropped from $96.2 million in 2011 to its current $84 million—all but $19 million of which is restricted to the particular use for which it was donated. Traditional women’s colleges have fallen out of favor; 50 years ago there were 230 in the United States, now there are about 40. In recent years Sweet Briar had discounted its $35,000 tuition by an average of 60 percent to attract enrollment.

The college’s administration immediately began work to help current students transfer to other institutions. Faculty and staff are looking for new employment. What will be done with Sweet Briar’s 3,250 acre campus, however, is even less certain—and the fate of its library holdings and special collections remains undecided, as well as that of the building itself.

The Sweet Briar library system consists of its main building, the Mary Helen Cochran Library; the Martin C. Shallenberger Book Arts Library and Fergus Reid College Archives; the Junius P. Fishburn Music Library; and the Wick Closed Stack Building. As of Sweet Briar’s centennial, the library’s holdings were estimated at 230,000 books, 350,000 microforms, 1,000 journal subscriptions, and more than 6,000 media resources.

Cochran Library was one of the first buildings constructed on the Sweet Briar campus in 1929 as part of architect Ralph Adams Cram’s original plan. In August 2014 an $8.8 million, two-year renovation of the original building by VMDO Architects was completed, offering large glass-enclosed open areas, state-of-the-art environmental controls, and upgraded Wi-Fi, as well as uncovering the original exterior brick and stonework, which had been covered by a 1967 addition.


Not even John Jaffe, the library’s director of integrated information systems/CIO who has been at the library since 1979, knows what will become of the collection, which includes concentrations in art history, medieval and Renaissance studies, classics, anthropology, engineering, and environmental sciences and policy, as well as the Sweet Briar archives.

Jaffe reported that the library has received calls requesting that the books be donated to poor countries such as Botswana; that they be used to provide libraries for startup Bible colleges in at least three states; and from booksellers suggesting, in Jaffe’s words, “let’s box up all your books and give you pennies on the pound.” The board of directors has agreed that the archives will be maintained and housed by another university, although their destination has not been chosen yet. “There are some special things that will probably go elsewhere,” Jaffe told LJ. “Some non–Sweet Briar related equestrian items will go to the National Sporting Library and Museum in northern Virginia. We have some Chinese materials that we digitized” that may find a home at another institution.

While not in charge of the ultimate decision, Jaffe will have input into the library’s dissolution. His preference, he explained, is that the collection be dispersed to other schools where Sweet Briar students will be transferring. He would like to offer first choices within the collection to other women’s institutions, but “we could also look at [a] single institution if an especially large number of current students transferred there, even if it isn’t a women’s college,” he added. “They should be distributed according to the mission of the institution and the will of the founder, if at all possible.”

That mission, however, is not perfectly clear. Sweet Briar’s founder, Indiana Fletcher-Williams, willed her family’s estate to be incorporated as “Sweet Briar Institute,” a college for women, stipulating that the land be used only for educational purposes. While this could potentially preclude the sale of the campus property and its buildings, Fletcher-Williams’s will has been successfully contested before. Her bequest specified that “The said corporation shall be formed for the object and with the power of establishing and maintaining…a school or seminary for the education of white girls and young women.” In 1964, the college filed a bill of complaint with the Amherst County Circuit Court to have the word “white” removed in order to admit African American students; the wording was not permanently struck until 1966.


The fate of the library building itself is also up in the air. Even after a 1967 renovation, the library had space issues, and was looking to consolidate its four branches—music, art, studio art, and science, as well as the main building. In 1995 a program was developed by a committee of students, faculty, librarians, the board of directors, and architects to determine the scope of the new library. However, although the college’s capital campaign was going well at the time, fundraising for the new library was not as successful and building plans were halted.

In 2010, the committee was reconstituted. And although fundraising again ceased when the recession hit, the board decided to do the best job possible with the funds they had. Sweet Briar worked hard with the architect to stay within budget and the building was finished in 2014. Money spent on the library did not contribute to the college’s financial troubles, Jaffe stressed. “Bottom line is that these were funds that were dedicated to the library facility and did not come from any operational budget.” While the board did look into possibly repurposing money from the restricted library funds for the college, it determined this was not feasible in terms of value and would oppose donor wishes. “I think they did everything they could to create the best library with the funding available and meet the expectations of generations of library donors,” added Jaffe.

At the new building’s dedication ceremony in November, Jaffe referred to it as “the culmination of a dream.” Now, he told LJ, professional and paraprofessional library staff members are busy making plans for various contingencies and seeking new positions in anticipation of their final work date of June 30. On VMDO’s website, a video about the Cochran renovation stated that “While the closing of the College comes as a shock, the Cochran Library rehabilitation works to honor the Library’s place in history while preserving its legacy for future generations.” For now, what this legacy will be is anyone’s guess.


Not everyone connected with the college believes that its situation is hopeless. On March 16, some 65 faculty members passed a resolution opposing the school’s closing, and requested a discussion with the board. A group of alumnae have also joined together as a nonprofit, Save Sweet Briar Inc., which raised more than $3 million in donations in its first few weeks. The group has hired a lawyer, Ashley Taylor Jr., who wrote to the president and board on March 23, requesting their resignation on the grounds that they breached their duties to the college by not exploring all available opportunities to keep it open, and have violated Virginia’s Charitable Solicitation statutes by using the monies collected from fundraising activities to shut down the school.

The administration has stated that they will not resign. A statement on the college’s website responded, “Threats of litigation to keep the College open could also delay efforts to determine how restricted funds may be utilized and further jeopardize Sweet Briar’s ability to close our operations responsibly, including meeting our responsibilities to students, faculty, staff, and creditors.” The remaining endowed funds are being handled by the college’s finance office and treated under the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act.

Students, by all accounts, are devastated. Some are resigned, said Jaffe, and have begun the process of transferring to new schools, but some are so demoralized that “they literally haven’t the strength or the will to fill out applications.” The March announcement was made after next year’s academic hiring season ended, so faculty and staff are scrambling to find new positions as well. The Sweet Briar community is angry, but also hurt and confused. “The outpouring is everywhere,” said Jaffe. “Colleagues, friends, academics, institutions. Everybody is kind of stunned.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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  1. steven bell says:

    I was judge for the 2013 “I Love My Librarian” award. Not one, but two librarians from Sweet Briar were nominated for that year It obviously made for a tough decision because the letters of nomination were stellar for both of the librarians. It speaks volumes about the great respect and appreciation the Sweet Briar community has for their librarians. It’s a tragedy for the entire institution, but a real loss for the academic librarian community. I wish the best for John and his staff, and that the library collection can be put to good use for another community.

  2. Henry Salerno says:

    This is so sad and a loss of an educational heritage for Virginia which should consider taking it over and turn it into a state run and funded institution.
    Also, a good place for our One Percenters to put some of their millions. Perhaps someone should contact Gates, Buffet, et al. They could provide the initial monies needed to turn it over to the state of Virginia.

  3. Katie Beth Ryan, SBC '08 says:

    I am currently pursuing my master’s in library science at Simmons, due in no small part to the experience I had working and studying at Cochran Library as a Sweet Briar student. Outstanding librarians like John Jaffe, Lisa Johnston, Liz Kent Leon, Joe Malloy, and others helped me with research, served as mentors, and even lent a shoulder to cry on when necessary. It deeply hurts to know they’re in this predicament, and along with fellow alumnae, am adamant to find solutions that will keep the college open for generations to come.

    Whether or not you’re affiliated with Sweet Briar, please consider donating to our efforts to Save Sweet Briar, at savingsweetbriar.com.

  4. Karen McGoldrick says:

    Since this article was written, a certified fraud accountant has been retained by SavingSweetBriar.com and has already made a preliminary finding that there is no such financial crises at Sweet Briar College that would require the school to shut down. There will be a further report, so stay tuned. This was a manufactured crises for as yet unknown reasons. Sweet Briar College will survive this.

  5. William Miller says:

    After having spent the last four days on-campus (stayed at the inn) assisting my daughter in the impossible task of selecting a college that will match her course of study at SBC and fully accept her credits, several observations have come sharply into focus.
    The overarching imperative that is driving this self-imposed train wreck is that a foundation handing out scholarships is much easier to run (at least in the mind of the board) than a women’s college in this new century. There are two requirements necessary to accomplish this. The college must die and it must die quickly, otherwise no funds will remain to fund the foundation. I doubt the alumnae will enthusiastically contribute to a foundation bearing the SB label after having just witnessed their alma mater die a quick, chaotic, and painful death.
    SBC must die in order to convince a judge to modify the will. This is the answer to why the board has not appealed to the alumnae and faculty or asked a judge to lift the restrictions on the endowment (I am sure this will happen but only after SBC is dead). Given the language in the will, and the size of the endowment, I do not believe that a judge would support the quick death of Sweet Briar College that the board has envisioned.
    Using this foundation imperative as a tool to evaluate the actions and messages of the board and administration, the following emerges.
     Why the timing of the announcement in the middle of midterms, right before spring break, and after transfer deadlines? To create as much chaos and confusion as possible. If, in the middle of January, it was known that the only option was to close SBC, why not vote immediately? Why wait until the end of February? Faculty, students, alumnae, and parents if not in a panic may actually have time to question the decision and take action. Also allows time to modify by-laws ensuring the desired decision is reached.
     Why continue the non-disclosure agreements of the board if the college will be dead in three short months? A key component of killing SBC is to control the message that the public, students, and faculty hear. Board members voicing their opinions confuse the message, which might delay SBC’s death (or interfere with establishing a foundation).
     Why not wait until June when the consultants are due to report their findings on possible options to save SBC? They may actually find (although unlikely since boards of organizations tend to hire consultants that confirm what they already ‘know’; the echo chamber effect) an option that is feasible.
     How long has this imperative been the plan, at least for some? Looking back much becomes suspect: the president resigning, lack of enrollment and development leadership, absence of meaningful appeals to alumnae and yes I have heard the excuse that analysis of alumnae and supporters indicated an insufficient amount of possible giving. Some things defy analysis especially involving humans (just ask an economist). If your college were dying, who would not try anyway?
     Why the absence of transparency concerning raw financial data? Message control.
     Why continue to lay new carpet and refurbish spaces (residence hall and inn)? To maintain the value of the physical plant. Greater value means more funds for the foundation.
     Why finish the library? A key factor of chaos is surprise. Not finishing the library would clearly indicate that the college is sinking quickly. In addition, a finished building is worth more than an unfinished one.
     Why the catalog entry reassuring prospective students and SBC stakeholders that the college is financially sound? See the library entry.
    I could continue but in the cause of brevity, I leave you this. Students, alumnae, faculty, parents and other stakeholders, you are major casualties of a grand plan. Don’t believe me? Wait 3 or 4 years and examine the outcome of SBC’s suicide. Sweet Briar College is 245 (out of 650) on the Forbes college list (2014), a substantial component of which is measurement of post-graduation success (The list also provides a financial rating, SBC’s is an A). Of the 16 women’s colleges on the list, SBC is ranked 8th. Combine this with the unique value-adding aspects of a Sweet Briar education and you have ample justification for saving Sweet Briar. The question now: Is it too late?

    • Sweet Briar Mom says:

      I agree completely – there never was any apparent reason to do this to the students, their families and of course the faculty and staff of Sweet Briar. Help – please?

    • Molly Phemister says:

      Forbes had us in the top 100 a very short time ago. Something has been done to sabotage this college. I am very concerned that the Virginia Attorney General has not stepped in yet. There is no reason for Sweet Briar to close other than the fact that far too many of the Board members are of retirement age and ready to do something else.

    • Laura Symons says:

      Mr. Miller, Thank you for providing the only explanation that makes sense. The timing and means of the announcement was a glaring sign that there was some slight of hand going on. The willingness to cause so much pain shows an an astonishing level of callous arrogance. My first response to the announcement still holds: somebody got an offer they couldn’t refuse.

    • Thank you for so succinctly stating what has been passing back and forth between my friends and I over the last few weeks, Mr. Miller.

    • No college would attempt a library renovation/ modeling with a shortness of finances. The timing is so unusual, it leaves me with a very uneasy feeling. When I first heard about Sweet Briar closing, I couldn’t imagine way, it seems to highly suspicious. I really believe Sweet Briar will be able to stay open, this is an amazing college with so much love from those who deeply care.

    • David Schierholz says:

      You left out faculty and tenure awards. 8 or 9 to 1?

  6. This college is a DIPLOMA MILL. Huge chunk of its graduates could not find a job ever. Some “claimed to be” alums along with some others have formed an unofficial online fundraising website that is NOT officially sanctioned by the College to raise money in the name of the college, money that directly GOES TO THEIR PERSONAL BANK ACCOUNTS!!!!

    • Most probably the last comment in this thread is not deserving of reply. However, the indignity and injustice of the situation at Sweet Briar are so gut wrenching that I cannot let a slanderous comment like this go without rebuttal. As a Sweet Briar graduate, I am quite certain I have a better vantage point regarding the value of a Sweet Briar degree than the author of the previous comment. I am gainfully employed, as are my classmates. My Master’s, PhD, and postdoc advisors never questioned the Sweet Briar diploma. Most certainly, as academics, they have the best credentials for assessing the rigor of another academic institution.

    • With all due respect, I suggest that you may not have accurate information for making your claims. A diploma mill is not an accurate description of Sweet Briar — I, for one, learned to study at Sweet Briar– those rigorous and hard won study habits served me well through 9 years of graduate study, which culminated in my doctoral degree. I was told that my Sweet Briar liberal arts degree was specifically what got me accepted into my doctoral program. Your statement about a “huge chunk of … graduates could not find a job ever” is also inaccurate – sorry, but you evidently have misinformation. You are also inaccurate in your statements regarding fundraising efforts by alumnae, and no, the funds raised are targeted to the efforts to preserve the College, rather than to anyone’s personal bank accounts. I regret that you chose to make such statements, as they are not supported by facts.

    • Jacqueline Kjono says:

      On the off cahnce anyone might actually believe this.

      We have had Pulitzer prize winners teach at Sweet Briar. The world’s leading expert on butterflies teaches there. We have a faculty to student ratio of about 1 to 8. When I was a student there, several of my classmates had transferred from Mount Holyoke. They said that the academics were not substantially different than what they had experienced at Mt. Holyoke but, they preferred the more relaxed setting and better access to faculty they found at Sweet Briar.

      I’ve seen this same message repeated almost word for word – always with a different name attached to it – to several of the news stories regarding Sweet Briar.

      The attorney who is suing on behalf of the Commonwealth is an actual alumna of the college who is working with the Save Sweet Briar group who has hired a well respected law firm to work for them.

  7. David M Christopher says:

    I am so confused! My daughter, Kari, is attending Sweet Brier College a private, girls only school and ending her Jr year as a student at the University of Seville, in Seville Spain. The only reason she attends that school (Sweet Brier) is because MY out of pocket expense is the same, as if, she had attended, Old Dominion University, the college I graduated from, or Virginia Tech, and the amount of money she was required to borrow to attend those school was exactly the same. She applied to other schools state, and private and it was within a few hundred bucks either way for all of them. So, I let her go to Sweet Brier, the school she chose.

    In round numbers a State school costs around $20,000 per year for tuition, room and board. Her private school costs in round numbers around $45,000 per year. But the private school gives her scholarships to make up the difference, or get rid of the difference. Well, it turns out those scholarships are FAKE money, called discounts which are based on the financial condition of the parents of the student.

    So, Kari, being a Spanish/education major gets into the Jr. Year in Spain program. All the FAKE money still counts for the cost of the year in Spain. I paid in round numbers, around $3,000, about $7,000 less than I would have paid for her to attend the campus at Sweet Brier for her Jr year and she did not have to take out any student loans.

    If you look at the costs for the Jr Year in Spain, it is $29,000. If I only paid $3,000 and Kari did not have to borrow money against the $29,000, who paid the other $23,000. Sweet Brier? Or did the University of Seville just let my kid attend the institution for $3,000. And that three thousand was tuition, room and board.

    No wonder the school has to close!

    And the people in charge of the school, Board and President, can not see this big discrepancy? Heck, even the rest of the schools employee’s should have seen this financial catastrophe.

    I asked on the initial email announcement how much the school would need to survive. The reply was twelve million to stay open another year and another $224 million to sustain operations into the future.

    Considering the school’s endowment, restricted or not, is only $84 million, where does the $224 million figure come from? And would the President and Board, should they get the $224 million, continue to give away years in Spain or France or other countries along with the other FAKE scholarships (I know the polite term is discount). Discounts that the college can not cover, or does not have the cash to pay, or has to borrow, is fraud in my mind. (I have to say, my child made out like a bandit, because of this fraud, but I was wondering about this the entire time).

    I majored in Accounting, but did not peruse a career in Accounting. I, instead, loaded up my electives with computer programming and electronics. I think it is my programmer mind that has made me wonder about all of this from the start. Nothing computes! Nothing adds up! There is no output to the program.

    Do I think the Judge should replace the President and Board? Yes!

    Would I want my daughter to have a degree from Sweet Brier? No?

    This school is tarnished by poor leadership.