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May 13, 2015

Does the pending closure of Sweet Briar signal the end of the liberal arts?

The answer – unequivocally – is “No.”

Students schooled in the liberal arts develop the skills that separate them from their more-narrowly trained peers. In the best liberal arts colleges, students graduate with an ability to articulate, write, employ quantitative methods, use technology and work in a collaborative setting. Would you rather have a competent engineer who could write and communicate in an engineering company or one who was narrowly specialized without these important additional “surround” skills? Which engineer is better equipped to contribute more to society?

At the same time, the growing debate over Sweet Briar raises important questions about how liberal arts colleges market and brand themselves. It is no longer sufficient to argue that liberal arts colleges educate citizens or that liberal arts students enjoy job mobility across employment fields. It is better to argue that liberal arts graduates are the best prepared for the work force – plain and simple.

That having been said, Sweet Briar offers American higher education important lessons:

• No one likes surprises. It is important to communicate to a college community the state of college affairs well before a crisis occurs. College communities have stakeholders and these groups see in their devotion an extended “sense of self.” For them, it’s like a death in the family occurred without knowing that the patient was sick.

• Differentiate. If differentiation isn’t possible, evolve. Liberal arts colleges can come across as “plain vanilla” imitations of one another. Yet, there are remarkable programs on many campuses. College leadership and their colleague faculty must emphasize excellence and be willing to tell the story. Don’t step on the lead. If college leadership determines that differentiation is insufficient, then logically trustees, administrators, faculty and staff must ask what new steps should be taken to grow the school in a different direction.

• Remember how you pay the bills. If Sweet Briar had a long-term enrollment problem, as it appears, then it required an “all hands on deck” moment to solve the admissions problem immediately. Most colleges lack sizeable endowments, whether public or private, and therefore are dependent on tuition and fees for the revenue to pay the salaries and keep open the college doors. There is little discretion after salaries, financial aid, capital expenditures, and the tuition discount. Budgets are rationing tools. Revenue must meet expenses.

• Plan ahead. Colleges need a dynamic, living, achievable strategic plan that can plan for more than a balanced annual operating budget. College leaders must link strategy to a land use plan, external relations program, hiring protocol, debt structure, financial aid program, and capital construction budget. You cannot fix what you do not understand when you fail to connect the dots.

• Clean up the governance issue. Presidents are like corporate CEO’s who act like 19th Century political ward bosses rationing favors while trying to manage a medieval craft guild. Boards of directors, made up of volunteers of varying talent and breadth who meet a few times a year, are the weakest link in the chain. Education across college governance groups is the key to how best to avoid the next Sweet Briar.

Sweet Briar was a significant shock to the higher education community. Whatever the outcome, Sweet Briar points to the glaring weaknesses in how college communities operate. The good news is that while the medicine may taste bad, the patient is very likely to recover, if the dose is administered in time.

Brian Mitchell is the former president of Bucknell University and founder of the Edvance Foundation in Boston, which is trying to strengthen partnerships between public and private colleges and universities.

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