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5 Lessons from Sweet Briar

5 Lessons from Sweet Briar

In the past year, Sweet Briar College has become both a cautionary tale and a rallying cry, but will its second chance be successful?  In the July/August issue of Trusteeship, John T. Casteen, president emeritus of the University of Virginia and father of a Sweet Briar faculty member, summarizes the situation so far and offers some first lessons for boards.  Read the full article here.

  1. Mind the mission. Boards have distinct responsibilities with regard to institutional mission—defining it, monitoring compliance with it, managing assets to sustain it, and so on. The original donor’s trust is said to require that the college remain a women’s institution. Yet new eyes and hands may find ways to give Sweet Briar new vitality.
  2. Develop stress tests, deploy them, and use what they reveal. Effective stress tests have fiduciary functions that can empower boards, and board members are first and foremost fiduciaries. In Sweet Briar’s case, the U.S. Department of Education’s Composite Financial Index told the board and the public nothing, and Standard & Poor’s action came well after the board seems to have known from other sources that the college was in trouble.
  3. Revisit the basics, time and again. And keep revisiting them so that the board knows what managers are doing, at what expense, and with what benefit. No matter how one reasons about tuition discounting, Sweet Briar’s reported 62 percent is too much: Board members need to know it when they see it.
  4. Be faulted for telling too much truth too soon rather than for telling too little or too little too late. Much of the criticism directed at Sweet Briar’s directors rings hollow to my ear. The criticism directed at the interim president does as well. Yet hindsight inevitably works to the disadvantage of persons on a prior shift.
  5. Know at least as much about hazards as about promising beginnings and distinguished pasts, and practice hard-eyed optimism. Institutions do sometimes come and go. Is closure the only remedy for a specific troubled college, or does sudden access to funds in a restricted endowment or major success in raising funds change the future?
Read John Casteen's full article, "Learning from Sweet Briar," and to improve your own effectiveness as a board member, consider attending an AGB webinar on "Ensuring Success: How to Be an Effective Board Member" for either independent or public institutions.
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