By Lauren R. Giannini
“Holla Holla Holla Nothing That You Cannot Do”: Sweet Briar College’s cheer can double as a battle cry. On March 3, 2015, the 114-year-old center of women’s learning seemed to be tottering on the brink of extinction when the blunt announcement appeared on SBC’s Facebook page that Sweet Briar, located near Lynchburg, Virginia, would close its doors forever in August.
The news triggered an explosion of reaction, ranging from shock and grief to disbelief, anger and outrage, which coalesced into the movement to save Sweet Briar. It wasn’t only the horsey students who were ready and willing to gallop into battle to save their beloved school. Alumnae of all ages, women who attended Sweet Briar for one or two years, current students, faculty and members of the global community rose to the call and showed solidarity by joining forces.
Within 24 hours of the March 3 bombshell, the “Saving Sweet Briar” website launched and a Facebook page — Saving Sweet Briar — provided frequent updates and encouraged donations. Smartphone users tweeted up a storm to #SaveSweetBriar. Before March ended, SBC alumnae had formed a non-profit (applying for 501(c)(3) status from the IRS), called Saving Sweet Briar, Inc. The energy behind the campaign to save Sweet Briar has been awe-inspiring.
Sweet Briar Alumnae
“Even though I graduated 20 years ago, I lean on my Sweet Briar sisters for advice, references for schools, jobs, travel plans — everything, and now we’re fighting to keep Sweet Briar open,” said Norma Valentine, ’93, of Aiken, South Carolina. “We need to keep this school open for the current students and for future generations of women and for the faculty and staff. Sweet Briar isn’t for four years. Sweet Briar is for life.”
By April 20, SavingSweetBriar.com reported $10 million in pledges with collected donations in excess of $5 million. Their goal is $20 million.
Never underestimate a woman educated at Sweet Briar. Although long considered a finishing school to prepare privileged young women for marriage, the actuality is that Sweet Briar has served as a training and proving ground for empowered women from diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds.
Graduates include Janet Lee Bouvier — mother of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; Anna Chao Pai — geneticist and professor emerita at Montclair State University; Diane Muldaur — actor and former president of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences; and TaskRabbit founder Leah Busque, to name a few. Many Sweet Briar students, including two-time Olympic rider and dressage trainer Lendon Gray, continued with horses as amateurs and professionals. The well-known horseman and author Paul D. Cronin served for 34 years as director of Sweet Briar’s riding program.
Standing for a Legacy
For now, the horses, art collections, buildings, real estate and other assets associated with the historical 3,250-acre campus are safe. Lawsuits have been filed, hearings held and injunctions granted to protect all assets and endowment funds from being used to close the school for six months dating from April 30. One judge astounded everyone with comments that alluded to something just not being right about the way the closure was announced with no warning and no prior reaching out to the alumnae. However, Sweet Briar administration was still accepting donations without a mention that the school was failing financially and that its closure was planned.
The entire tale supports an old saying — truth is stranger than fiction — and the entire story is far too complicated to summarize. The frenzy of activity since early March to stop Sweet Briar’s closure has been assisted by technology, social networking and the Internet. There’s history behind Sweet Briar: the land and financial endowment made in memory of the daughter of the founder, Indiana Fletcher Williams, as a women’s institute of higher education, awarding bachelor of arts, bachelor of fine arts, bachelor of science, master of arts in teaching and master of education degrees.
Sweet Briar has a reputation for educating powerful women. A recurring theme in quotes by alumnae appearing in the flurry of media coverage is that Sweet Briar taught them to be fearless and independent, to question and to pursue their dreams with determination and fortitude. It’s a huge mistake to be lulled into complacency by elitist images of young women wearing pearls with jeans, school colors of pink and green (inspired by roses that flourished on the plantation) and horsey girls cantering around in fancy breeches and boots.
Saving Sweet Briar
From diverse backgrounds, from all parts of the world, Sweet Briar alumnae are ready and willing to do whatever it takes to save their school. This sisterhood is the heart of a far-reaching Sweet Briar community. Armed with spirit, backbone and moxie, they’re waging one heck of a fight.
“It’s what we’re taught to be — women who aren’t afraid to stand up for what we believe in,” said Samantha Brittell (’11), master’s candidate in political philosophy at Georgetown University. “We believe in Sweet Briar. We’re not backing down. Sweet Briar is a passion. We were taught to be passionate, active, energized and engaged citizens of the world. We’re determined to save Sweet Briar.”
For more information visit, savingsweetbriar.com.