After a court reprieve, can Sweet Briar College play to its single-sex strengths?

Sweet Briar administrators have squared off against a coalition of alumnae, faculty, and students. At the heart of the issue: How relevant are women's colleges in 2015?

Max Oden/The News & Advance/AP
Sweet Briar College graduates sing their school's song during commencement exercises May 16, 2015 near Amherst, Va. The school announced plans to close, potentially making the class of 2015 the school's last.

The Supreme Court of Virginia has given hope to supporters of same-sex education, halting the planned closure of 114-year-old Sweet Briar College.

Some proponents of single-sex education argue that the declining enrollment facing Sweet Briar and other women's colleges is the result of playing down their strengths as a same-sex institution, instead of embracing the advantages of their old-school but still effective approach.

On Feb. 28, the college's governing board, Sweet Briar Institute, voted to shut the school's doors in the face of a shrinking student body and a restricted-use endowment. A group of alumnae, faculty, and students went to court to challenge the decision. 

Tuesday's Virginia Supreme Court ruling returned the case to the circuit court, saying the lower court had erred in concluding that Sweet Briar Institute could unilaterally decide to close the school. Justices ruled that “The law of trusts [i.e., estates] can apply to a corporation."

According to the Saving Sweet Briar website, opponents of the closing want the college to honor the 1901 will of Indiana Fletcher Williams, who left her entire estate to establish a women's college in perpetuity, in memory of her daughter who died at age 16.

Saving Sweet Briar Inc., a nonprofit, has raised $16 million in pledges to help keep the college open.

Alumnae Sally Mott Freeman, who helped organize the group Saving Sweet Briar, told the Monitor that “In the past seven or eight years the college has not played to its strength.”  

"Going to a women’s college has lifelong benefits," says Ms. Mott Freeman. "They eliminated those words, or comments, from their narrative, and I don’t think that was wise."

Mott Freeman cites the number of successful public figures who graduated from women's colleges, including Madeleine Albright, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Gloria Steinem. Sweet Briar's distinguished alumnae include Mary Lee Settles, National Book Award winner; Leah Busque, founder of TaskRabbit; and Colleen Bell, US ambassador to Hungary. 

“Look at the statistics: 20 percent of the women in Congress went to women’s colleges, 30 percent on the Fortune 1,000 list went to all-women colleges – and the reason that statistic is remarkable is that only two percent of the women in this country went to women’s colleges,” Mott Freeman says.

Despite the fierce advocacy of their graduates, single-sex institutions are on the decline nationwide. Only three men's colleges remain open (Hampden-Sydney in Virginia, Morehouse in Georgia, and Wabash College in Indiana) and the ranks of women’s colleges are rapidly dwindling. Some, like Harvard University's Radcliffe College, have merged completely into their sibling institutions.

“Women’s colleges are dwindling because many college student perceive the co-ed college setting as being more fun,” says Dr. Leonard Sax, founder of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE) in an interview. “A corollary to that is that many of these women’s colleges have run away from their identity. They hire consultants who say, ‘Look, kids want to do a bunch of things at college, one of which is have a good time and they don’t think they’ll have a good time at a single-sex school.' So they tell them ‘Don’t broadcast that part of your identity.' And we have found empirically that’s bad advice, as Sweet Briar demonstrates.”

Of Tuesday’s court decision Ms. Mott Freeman says, “I see tremendous hope in this move. I don’t think money could have bought a public relations campaign that could have proved the point better. This is a groundswell of 8,000 graduates that from day one showed their leadership, executive and fundraising and general savvy in fighting something they saw as (A) a false narrative and (B) a sucker-punch on its face. The public has seen why schools like this have value.”

The National Association for Single-Sex Public Education estimates that approximately 400 public schools now offer some form of single-sex education.  

“We have never argued that single-sex education is always better than co-education,” Dr. Sax says. “What we have argued is that people differ and what is best for one is not necessarily best for all. Some people do better in a single-sex environment and the benefits of women’s colleges can be pretty dramatic, because we live in a sexist society."

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