On February 28, 2015 the Board of Trustees of Sweet Briar College, a small women’s liberal arts college in Virginia, announced that the College would be closing this summer because of the “insurmountable financial challenges” resulting from the dwindling number of women interested in single-sex education, pressures on small liberal arts colleges and the challenge of recruiting students to more rural settings. On behalf of the Chatham community, I write to reflect sadness for the loss of this fine college from the ranks of US higher education, and to express our sympathy to the Sweet Briar community (students, faculty, staff and alumnae) for their loss.
Except for the last factor cited by Sweet Briar’s Board, Chatham has wrestled with many of the same challenges that led Sweet Briar to close its doors (unlike Sweet Briar, Chatham is fortunate to be situated in a welcoming and supportive major metropolitan area). And though we understand and appreciate that every higher education institution’s situation is different, that what works in one institution may or may not work in another, our own recent experiences suggest that our survival rests on more than our urban setting.
Foremost among them are Chatham’s core excellence, our commitment to the growth of the individual (which after all was the original meaning of ending the discrimination which denied access for women to higher education), and our continuing commitment to change and innovation. The former dates back to our founding, while the latter dates back to the early ’90’s when we diversified our academic profile, adding to our undergraduate liberal arts program with applied graduate programs.
Without the continuing commitment to change and innovation, we would not be where we are today. It allowed us to face down tough challenges such as the ’08 financial crash with the attendant fiscal constraints in which we all participated. It inspired us to take the opportunity given to us by the Eden Hall and Falk Foundations and reposition the institution and become a national leader in the vitally important field of sustainability. And when we could no longer ignore the risks of single gender education, it led us to become coeducational at the undergraduate level (which will be realized next fall) while working to preserve the women’s mission with the formation of the Women’s Institute.
That same spirit of change and innovation has been much in evidence over the past year. We have reorganized the university to provide access to graduate programs upon admission to undergraduate education and with the revision have also facilitated transfer. And thanks to the great leadership of Dr. Bill Lenz, Dr. Jenna Templeton and many others, the faculty has created in only one semester the outline for a curriculum revision that, along with the Chatham Plan (the new professional preparation program for undergraduates starting in fall 2015), addresses many of the current public concerns about liberal arts while nonetheless still ensuring they underpin all majors.
Although it is still early, the results from our recent changes and innovation are encouraging. At this time the deposited first time first year class is nearly double that of last year with no significant rise in discount rate. Graduate and other programs are also up.
All of the encouraging news, however, is tempered by our caution about the future and our appreciation of the need to press ahead with attempts to strengthen Chatham in every way possible – innovation when needed, programmatic and enrollment growth, help with recruitment and fundraising to complete our $100 million capital campaign – to preserve and advance this exceptional institution. Sweet Briar, just to bring the point into sharper focus, had even at the end more endowment ($94 million) than our scrappy college has (approximately $80 million, $15 million of which was only recently given by the Falk Foundation).
In reflecting on the news from Sweet Briar and on all that we have accomplished in recent years, I would like to thank all of you – Chatham’s faculty, administration, staff, alumnae/i and students – for your commitment to Chatham and your commitment to the continuous innovations and change which have permitted us to advance thus far.
I express my gratitude for the caring, willingness, and openness with which we all go into our future as proud members of the Chatham community. It has required, and will require in the future, the energies and committed work of each of us to realize our mission.