How to Close a College

Yesterday, the board of trustees of one of the older colleges in Virginia–Sweet Briar College–announced they were closing the college at the end of this academic year, despite the fact that the college still has an endowment worth over $80 million for its student body variously reported as being between 550-700 students. This choice to end the college’s life on the college’s terms rather than the market’s terms was certainly a wrenching one and has been widely debated all across the Internet in the past 24 hours.

I fully understand the difficulties the board faced, because in 2002, I was the chair of the board of the Civic Education Project (CEP), a very successful international educational NGO operating in the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. That spring, our board voted to cease operations and donate whatever cash was left in our accounts after the shut down to an NGO doing work similar to ours.

In our case, the reason for our decision to close was that our primary funder had decided that we would have to either merge with his own organization, or lose our annual grant that represented more than 65% of our funding base. I have no complaints with his decision–and it’s worth noting that over the 15 years that CEP was in operation, he was extraordinarily generous, far beyond our wildest expectations. It was, after all, his money.

Thus, as a board we were faced with three choices: merge with an organization whose values we shared, but whose operational approach we disagreed with; close; or become a grant driven organization rather than a mission driven organization. We spent six months (and much of our cash reserves) scouting the waterfront of possible options for that third way. In the end, we voted to close rather than become an organization we couldn’t be proud of.

My reading of the news coming out of and about Sweet Briar is that the college’s trustees faced similar choices, albeit in a slightly different context. As happened to the CEP board back in 2002, their options were constrained by market forces they could not control. And as we did back in 2002, they chose death with dignity over a slow death inflicted by the market.

Sweet Briar isn’t the first college to close in Virginia this decade, nor will it be the last. But in making difficult choices early rather than in extremis, the college’s board set an example for those who all too soon will face similarly constrained options.

I’m sad for the students, faculty, staff, and alumnae of the college, and for the community of Amherst which is losing an important economic engine. But I’m proud of the college’s board. They’ve made an incredibly painful decision and are, as far as I can tell, doing all the right things now that the choice has been made.