Administration

That Time Sweet Briar Tried to Merge With the U. of Virginia

July 14, 2015

Before it decided to close, and then not to close, Sweet Briar College tried to become part of the University of Virginia, according to records obtained by The Chronicle.

That might not come as a surprise to anyone who has followed the Sweet Briar saga. In interviews with The Chronicle earlier this year, members of the college’s former leadership said they had pursued partnerships that might have saved the 114-year-old women’s college — in some form, at least. They would not get into details, although one trustee mentioned the possibility of becoming "a satellite school of a bigger institution."

Several emails among members of the UVa administration, along with notes from a meeting between the university board’s rector and Sweet Briar’s president, show discussions of a possible merger that never came to pass.

David W. Breneman, an emeritus professor at UVa who studies the economics of higher education, was serving on the Sweet Briar board as low enrollments and declining revenues drove the college toward a crisis late last year.

On December 10, Mr. Breneman sent an email to John D. Simon, the UVa provost. "I assume the Sweet Briar conversation was drowned out by more pressing matters," wrote Mr. Breneman, who had spent the semester away from the campus. (He was probably referring to the death of Hannah Graham and the furor over Rolling Stone’s since-retracted reporting on an alleged incident of campus rape.) "Which, if true, is a shame," he continued. "As I said, lots to talk about."

In early January, somebody from Sweet Briar called the office of William H. Goodwin Jr., vice rector of UVa’s board, and asked to set up a phone call between Mr. Goodwin and Paul G. Rice, chairman of Sweet Briar’s board. "She said there is some urgency for the call," wrote Mr. Goodwin’s assistant, Sherry S. Rankin, in a January 6 email to her boss. They set up a call for that afternoon.

About a week later, Theresa McNabb, an assistant to James Jones Jr., the Sweet Briar president, called the Richmond law office of George Keith Martin, rector of UVa’s board, to propose an in-person meeting between the two men. The meeting would last 90 minutes to two hours, according to an email by Mr. Martin’s assistant summarizing the call. It would have something to do with a "confidential letter" the Sweet Briar president had sent to the rector.

Barry T. Meek, a lawyer for the university, told The Chronicle that Mr. Jones’s letter was "introductory" — an attempt by the Sweet Briar president to establish a rapport with UVa leaders as a pretext for talks.

The university denied The Chronicle’s attempt to obtain that letter via an open-records request, citing an exemption that protects the privacy of individual students. The letter contained "some personal information relating to the writer and his family," said Mr. Meek.

On January 14, Mr. Goodwin pumped the brakes. In an email he told Mr. Martin that UVa should not rush into talks with Sweet Briar.

"In my opinion, there is really no reason for us to have a discussion with Sweet Briar until there is first a discussion that takes place between Terry, you, and I," the vice rector wrote, probably referring to Teresa A. Sullivan, the university’s president. He recommended that they set up a conference call among top administrators "to discuss the potential for a Sweet Briar arrangement."

The Chronicle’s understanding of how seriously UVa considered the possibility of absorbing the troubled college 45 minutes to the south is limited by what can be ascertained from the emails. A spokesman for the university declined to comment.

We do know that, at some point, the rector of the UVa board and the president of Sweet Briar did meet. Mr. Martin took notes on the meeting. Here are some things he wrote down:

  • "Proposal to make Sweet Briar an extension of UVa."
  • "Set a reason for UVa to consider."
  • "Campus is large and undeveloped."
  • "Room to grow."
  • "Serving kids in Virginia primarily."
  • "Can be done w/o state subsidies."

In the end, of course, a deal did not happen. The Sweet Briar board voted at the end of February to close the college; its alumnae fought the decision, and won. This month a new administration took office, committed to keeping Sweet Briar open as an independent women’s college, and the leaders who had pursued a merger with UVa resigned.

Peter A. Blake, director of State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, said a merger between the two institutions would have been a long shot. If UVa were to have bailed out a failing private college, Mr. Blake’s office would have become involved. There would need to have been a compelling reason for the state to take on that risk, he said.

"As good and as much value as SBC brought to Virginians and others," he said, "that would be a high threshold to overcome as far as a public investment as an institution of higher education."

Mr. Blake was aware that Sweet Briar was on the brink of an existential crisis and that Mr. Jones had been reaching out to a number of institutions in the state. As for the college’s talks with UVa, "I knew there was discussion back and forth, but that was about the extent of it," he said. "I really don’t know how serious that became."

Not too serious, according to Mr. Breneman. Sweet Briar talked about merging with a number of colleges, including some private institutions, even before Mr. Jones became president, said Mr. Breneman in an interview in April. But none of those inquiries, including the UVa idea, got to the point where the board was asked formally to consider a merger.

"It would have had to have been something that looked like the makings of something that could happen, and we never really got to that place," said Mr. Breneman. "It takes two to tango, and I don’t think we found a tango partner."

Steve Kolowich writes about how colleges are changing, and staying the same, in the digital age. Follow him on Twitter @stevekolowich, or write to him at steve.kolowich@chronicle.com.

Correction (7/14/2015, 7:45 a.m.): This article initially used the wrong first name to identify a UVa student who was killed last fall. She is Hannah Graham, not Heather. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.