Thursday, June 11, 2015

Mr. Breneman, Let's Be Clear: The Board of Directors Failed

This post is an open letter, a rebuttal to a Washington Post op-ed by David W. Breneman, member of the Sweet Briar College Board of Directors.  Dr. Breneman has extensive experience in higher education, notably in the financial realm.

Dr. Breneman:

Allow me to rebut your June 10, 2015 statements point-by-point.  I do hope you are sitting in a comfortable spot; this will take a while.

A Record Number of Applicants with a Decreasing Yield
Colleges and universities across the country are experiencing the exact same "problem" with yield.  A decade ago, a student applied to four or five colleges and enrolled in one. With the introduction of the Common Application, a student now applies to eight or nine schools.

And still only enrolls in one.

You are absolutely correct that enrollment is the highest priority when it comes to running a college. Which is why it's surprising that:
  1. There was no Dean of Enrollment
    Louise is awesome and wonderful and competent and deserves heaps of praise for taking on additional responsibilities.  That does not, however, automatically give her a background in Admissions.  She hasn't had the experience of working in different colleges and universities, learning from others' successes and failures, sharing best practices, and having a mentor who understands the Admissions field.

  2. There was no Director of Marketing
    Again, when you place a non-subject-matter-expert in a position of tremendous influence, you receive less-than-stellar results.  This is not to knock the individual who was in the position. Rather, ask yourself: How effective was the Marketing? This is a rhetorical question; we know how effective the Marketing was.

    In the Sweet Briar Woman video, less than 30 seconds were allocated to academics.  Most of the time was spent on the equestrian program, swimming, dance, art, and campus scenery.  It's a gorgeous video, but when you are promoting yourself to young women looking for boys (boys!), social activities, and a fun atmosphere, you don't show them a slow-mo video of wide open spaces with students alone or in pairs.

    An individual with real marketing experience would know that.

  3. Sweet Briar's strategic plans show goals of 750-800 students
    Where did the 1,200 number come from?  Where are you planning on housing the extra 400 students?
Prospective Students
(a.k.a. Important for Enrollment)
  1. No interest in a single-sex college
    You should have seen me at 16 years old: BOY! CRAZY!  The thought of going to a "girls' school to be taught by nuns" made me laugh and cringe at the same time.  I only visited campus because my mom (ugh! mother!) dragged me there on our way to visit a large, urban, co-ed university (where there were boys!).

    After spending the night with current students, attending a class & speaking with a professor, and learning what it really meant to attend a women's college--leadership experience, a focus on education, an automatic sisterhood (without having to join a sorority, like at a large university), and developing myself as a woman--I told my mother that she was right (ugh! mother!).  We never made it to the large, urban, co-ed university.  Yet somehow I managed to see boys (boys!) every weekend and usually once mid-week.

  2. Lack of social life
    Back in the 1990's, we had Dell Parties, performances, author readings, movies, and more for students who didn't want to leave campus.  Upperclasswomen opened their arms and car doors to new students: a throng of women headed over the mountain to Lexington; another wound its way to Farmville.  From what I understand, there are no more Dell Parties.  There are fewer performances.  The atmosphere on campus is such that students don't want to stay there.

    When you take away the social life, you take away the students who are looking for more than just a place to study.

  3. Too small
    This is a selling point, not a detractor.  One-on-one meetings with your French professor to share an exciting passage you read in Madame Bovary and you couldn't wait until class tomorrow.*  The opportunity to work on the latest in scientific research and receive author credit (as an undergrad!) with your professor, an honor reserved for graduate students at large universities.  Small class sizes where the professors encourage you to share your views and think critically about your beliefs...and are expected to back them up with logic and sound reasoning.

    * Hyperbole.  This would never happen with Madame Bovary.

  4. Retention
    I wouldn’t want to attend a college where the President ignored the students, faculty and staff were afraid for their jobs, and there was limited social life, either. What was done to slow the tide of transfers?
The endowment only needs to reach $250 million if there is no change in the business model.  As the Board has stated many times, the current business model is unsustainable.  We agree on that aspect.

We diverge here: you and the Board want to keep the business model the same and destroy Indiana Fletcher Williams' wish to educate women in memory of her daughter; I want to change the business model so that Sweet Briar becomes sustainable once again and the college lives on for another 114 years.

Or, you know, in perpetuity.  Whichever comes last.

Closing with Dignity
You may have expected that the students, faculty, staff, and alumnae would shed a tear, wax poetic about the past, and move on to the next flight-of-fancy.  Or is your idea of dignity:
  1. Calling the media to take action shots of heartbroken students as they poured out of the auditorium?  Grief counselors would have been more effective.

  2. Holding a college fair right when students come back from Spring Break after the closure announcement?  Have you read any of the stories of the students who have not transferred successfully?  Thankfully, the Alumnae Angels stepped up where you failed and assisted with application and deposit fees. The Sweet Briar website says that 231 final transcripts have been processed. How are the remaining 170 students faring?

  3. An unwillingness to share the data that led the Board to the conclusion that the school must close?  My children will tell you that "we don't have to" share is a no-no.

  4. Making the post office staff hand out pink slips via registered mail?  Instead of facing faculty and staff and standing by your decision.

  5. Evicting an 86-year-old woman from her on-campus apartment?  She worked at Sweet Briar for decades.

  6. Evicting faculty and staff who own their on-campus homes, but not the property on which they sit?

  7. Fairly ensuring that faculty will not have the opportunity to find jobs for the 2015-2016 academic year?  Faculty appointments were made prior to the announcement.  You are leaving them homeless and jobless.  Though one career counselor did recommend getting a CDL license and driving a truck.

  8. Blaming the lawsuits as the sole reason you can't provide faculty severance?  It was never a sure thing: from the very beginning, severance was a "hope to" after the restricted funds go through the courts, a process which could take up to two years.  All statements coming from the Board of Directors list the creditors first.

    The creditors.  Not the students.  Not the faculty.  Not the staff.  The creditors.
A Last-Hope Merger
With all due respect, Dr. Breneman, your "last hope" is the 10,000+ stakeholders who are intent on Saving Sweet Briar.

Unable to Find an Answer
As trustees, when you determined that you were no longer in a position to serve the best interests of the college, it was your duty to resign from the Board and find new trustees with new ideas who could find that answer.  

You have, by your own admission, failed in your fiduciary duty.  It is time for the interim president and the Board of Directors to step down.


  1. You are the best. Well said. Go Vixens!

  2. Well put. The 10,000+ stakeholders wouldn't BE the "last hope" if the Board had either done its' job properly -- or turned to those stakeholders a whole lot sooner.

  3. Well put. The 10,000+ stakeholders wouldn't BE the "last hope" if the Board had either done its' job properly -- or turned to those stakeholders a whole lot sooner.

  4. BUT WAIT!!! THERE'S MORE!!!!!

    Not only did the common app inflate application numbers, they waived application fees for anyone who could fog a mirror just to show they were "making progress".

    How about them apples?

    Also, only 8 of 40 minorities of freshman class of 2015 stuck it out until graduation. Most left in the first year because they felt ostracized and subjected to racist remarks by a small group, which nothing was done about. Not exactly a recipe for success there.

    Author of this blog - please contact me.

  5. Pamela, absolutely brilliant and well done. WSJ, NYT and WaPo worthy!! Holla, Holla! #SAVESWEETBRIAR