Phillip C. Stone’s honeymoon as the new president of Sweet Briar College was brief. When Mr. Stone took over last summer, Sweet Briar was alive, but barely. Students and professors had fled the women’s college after the previous president announced that it would close. The Virginia college managed to open in the fall, but at half its previous size. In many ways Sweet Briar, whose inability to grow played a key role in the college’s decline, is now in an even deeper hole than it was a year ago, when its Board of Directors tearfully decided to bury it. In an interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Stone talks about how he hopes to dig out and rebuild the college stronger than ever.
Saving a Campus
See more of this video series with Phillip C. Stone on the future of Sweet Briar College.
PHILLIP STONE: My pleasure, thank you.
STEVE KOLOWICH: A year ago, Sweet Briar had about 530 students on campus, I believe 150 or so more abroad, 80 full-time faculty, and I think about 40 academic programs. What has changed in the year since? What is still there and what's not there anymore from this time last year?
PHILLIP STONE: Well, I can say generally that all the programs are still there. The student enrollment is certainly less than half of the number you cited. We dropped to about 240. We had none July 4th weekend, so we didn't have much time to get students before opening in six weeks, so we had about 240 students.
We still had a significant number of students abroad. The number you cited about students abroad included mostly students from other schools who participated in Sweet Briar's junior-year-abroad program. We have only maybe less than a dozen participating out of Sweet Briar itself.
Now there are only four or five participating from Sweet Briar, but there's still a significant number of international students in the Sweet Briar program. All the programs are open. The riding program came back to Sweet Briar. It was about to go to another school. It's a very famous riding program and it's doing well.
About This Series
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So there's some things where we're really thin, but we're doing everything. Shakespearean play, ballet dance — whatever it is, we're doing them all.
STEVE KOLOWICH: What about faculty? How many full-time, how many part-time do you have now?
PHILLIP STONE: We lost about 40 percent of our faculty by the closing announcement. About eight of those, I would call them stars really. We really wanted them back, have agreed to come back and will be coming back this fall. So we ended up with about 55 percent of the faculty numbers we had earlier.
STEVE KOLOWICH: You said that in order to survive, Sweet Briar needs substantially more students than it has now, and in fact more than it had at the time that the previous board decided that it needed to close. What's the number that you're shooting for ultimately?
PHILLIP STONE: We need to reach 800. And 800 is an important plateau for us because we have bed capacity for 800. So the marginal cost of adding additional students it's pretty minimal. And we start having economies of scale in food service and the other support services, so it'll be a great help to us if we can get to 800.
At that point, a board and administration would need to decide do we need to get bigger. Based on my experience of having been a college president 16 years before I went to Sweet Briar, I don't think you can be viable at 800 unless you're really wealthy. I think you need to be up to around 1,800. And I say that based on experience of seeing the economies of scale that you can generate, the depth of programs in terms of the faculty depth. And it seems to me that eventually Sweet Briar will have to look at the 1,200 mark, 1,500 mark, and frankly, the 1,800 mark.
STEVE KOLOWICH: So where are you going to find these students? Because it's not like the previous administration wasn't looking for them. Maybe they weren't looking in the right places. What are some of the new places and some of the new messages that you're going to try to put out there to populate the campus?
PHILLIP STONE: Ironically, the year of the fall before the March attempt to close, the enrollment being generated for this current year, for the year the turned out to be — it was supposed to be closing — actually generated more applications than it had in a good number of years. The efforts to close those applications — those efforts were abandoned because of the closing. So we look at that as a hopeful sign.
At this point year-to-date, we have a record number of applications. It's the most we've had in at least 50 years. We don't think anybody had more than that 50 years ago.
STEVE KOLOWICH: How many?
PHILLIP STONE: We have almost 1,200 applications. Now, let me be quick to say that nobody knows quite how to read applications anymore because the students have these multiple application forms. And they can apply pretty inexpensively and pretty easily with the computers. And so, until they start paying deposits in another month or so, it's awful hard for us to read a lot into that. I'd rather have more than less. I'm glad to have a record high, and I think that's promising.
I'm planning right now, personally, to go with a couple colleagues to China soon to work on an agreement with some government officials and civic leaders and academics there to try to recruit Chinese students — highly-qualified Chinese students who speak English to come to Sweet Briar that are really interested in women and leadership. The Chinese — some of the Chinese officials are focusing very much on that in their culture, and they see this as a great opportunity for the young women to get a liberal-arts education focused on women and leadership. So they like the fact that we're single sex.
STEVE KOLOWICH: It's a crowded recruiting market over there.
PHILLIP STONE: It is.
STEVE KOLOWICH: And how are you going to sell Sweet Briar against basically everybody and their mother who are recruiting over there?
PHILLIP STONE: Everybody wants the good students, but what we are looking at is the fact that we do have a women's college, and while it might appear to some to be off putting because the pool for most students are shrinking in America, there are a lot of countries where this is reassuring to families because of the safety issue or just because of the way their cultural values push them to keep women to themselves for a while. But right now, there's a specific interest in Sweet Briar because it is a women's college.
STEVE KOLOWICH: And that still is not going to change?
PHILLIP STONE: I have no intention to propose it. I don't think the alumnae want to change it. Obviously, leadership in the future has to decide, but I would never make that recommendation. I've been president of a coeducational college — there are lots of us — lots of co-ed colleges. Some of those go under. There's no silver bullet in being co-ed. You have a bigger pool students.
But the competition, I would suggest, is not always with the co-ed private college. Competition is at public universities. They've taken the market share, and they continue to. They offer so many bells and whistles and at a lower sticker price, and it's just hard for private colleges to compete — co-ed or not.
And so, yeah, we have a harder job when we're single-sex colleges. But we also can turn that into an asset saying, we have a niche because there are few of us left. And for those young women who want that, we ought to make the case for doing it, but also the case that we're really good at it.
STEVE KOLOWICH: Is there anybody anywhere else domestically — I mean, new places that you're recruiting in the United States, new kinds of students that you're looking for, new pitches that you're making on the home front.
PHILLIP STONE: Yeah. The publicity, the media attention of the closing and reopening and the renewal — that has just been fabulous. And it has created a kind of an aura around us, about the "little engine that could" or the David against Goliath — whatever. And so, a lot of young women are just really intrigued by the idea that women of Sweet Briar saved their college, and so we're hearing a lot of that when they come to visit. I heard about how the women saved this college, and we'd like to be part of that kind of group.
So we're hearing that in a lot of places, even when I was out in place like San Francisco and Los Angeles, recently, and San Antonio, Texas. Heard it everywhere. I also think that the alumnae are working really hard to help us. We have over 400 alumnae prepared to help us recruit by going to high school fairs and college fairs, and to actually call students and urge them to see — come look at Sweet Briar.
And that's because we don't have enough staffing to get every state in some of the more remote areas. It's wonderful to be able to call an alumna and say, would you help us?
STEVE KOLOWICH: How much longer can you count on volunteer, extra staff, among the alumni? How's their exhaustion level from what you can read both in terms of fund raising and also their enthusiasm about giving of their time and their volunteer efforts to help you guys rebuild?
PHILLIP STONE: I've seen no diminution in their passion and their energy. When I went up to Texas — I mentioned that earlier — and California, the crowds are huge. A lot of alumnae turning out for these meetings. They are enthusiastic and passionate. They want to know about their college. They want to know how they can help.
They're trying to organize more — not fewer, more workdays — to come to the campus, to volunteer, to do menial tasks that make the campus sparkle. They're trying to help with the recruitment of new students. They are suggesting all kinds of ideas and programs for the college, more than we can accommodate right now.
But just thinking a lot about what should the college look like, what else would benefit this college? So I see no drop off in this passion, and I have no reason to predict that it will anytime soon.
STEVE KOLOWICH: So the previous administration faced this challenge in bringing in enough revenue from tuition, and that had a lot to do with the fact that Sweet Briar was giving out a lot of scholarships in order to attract students who can't pay the full sticker price. And I'm curious about whether part of your strategy is going to be to reduce the amount of financial aid available to students and try to recruit more students who can pay the full freight?
PHILLIP STONE: We have not made any policy change to either give more or less financial aid. As you can imagine, that's often a function of who actually accepts your invitation to come. If you are recruiting solid A students who can go anywhere to college, they're competitive enough. They get big scholarships, so your financial aid looks bad, your students look great. While your weaker students might not get as much financial aid, but they're not necessarily the highest quality students to bring it.
So a lot of it is a function of who accepts to produce that discount rate. We are not in the position right now to worry too much about the discount rate, that is to fix it or to improve that situation because we first have to become more stable, to get our numbers under our current system. So what we're trying to do is if we can have economies of scale by having more students, like the 800, we have to keep in mind that there's a part of the charge made to the student that is not discounted at all. It's 100 percent collected, and that's room, board, and auxiliary enterprises.
Some schools don't pay a lot of attention to that. They just want to make sure they don't lose money on that. But if you get a good bit of your revenue from those sources and you have more students paying it, you will find that you can be strong.
STEVE KOLOWICH: Are there any other different revenue generation strategies? Any other sources that you're trying to develop?
PHILLIP STONE: Sure. We have with our large campus over 3,000 acres. We see our land is quite an asset. We don't want to see it develop as a commercial property, but it still has value. One of the things we've done is to stop using some of the bad fuels that people are concerned about.
And so in doing that, we create fuel energy credits that we can then sell to the tax system and the government systems, people who need the credit to buy them, and you can get tax deductions. We had over $200,000 of revenue just on that. So, an example, we are looking at trying to get a grant for solar energy that would be very energy saving to us. We're going to have more and more conferences. We have that beautiful hotel or small conference center.
And we already have conferences. We want to have more of them to generate more revenue. So we're looking at a lot of different streams of income all related to the campus and the campus environment. To be done on our campus.
STEVE KOLOWICH: I have one more question, which is it's been about a year, again, since the attempted closure. By the end of this academic year, how will you measure — how will you have measured success in your first year as president? What are, say, three metrics that you're looking at very carefully, and where are you at in terms of meeting those goals?
PHILLIP STONE: Well, the most urgent thing we faced was to get the school opened in an orderly and timely manner. That was a hard job, as you recall from your previous conversations with me. We basically had no staff, no faculty, no students, and the programs have been outsourced. So getting that done was critical. And that is clearly a mark of success.
I would say of the urgent things that had to be done just to get us back alive and renewed so that we could be a function as a good college, we've had extraordinary success. It's just gone really well. I mean, anything from food service to the riding program to the attention we gotten from a faculty member getting awards to students competing in international competition and winning a first prize. All those things have just been great successes.
The next thing has to be more forward looking, and that is will we by this June 30, at the end of the fiscal year, have at least 200 students enroll for the fall, and hopefully 240 new students of all sorts coming in to the fall. And will we also have a significant number, and I mean at least a couple dozen, international students because we want to be a global community — an international community.
We also have to measure ourselves to whether or not we raised the $10 million on which this year's budget is based. That's urgent. We must do that. Otherwise, what we would be doing is what the prior administrations were doing, which is taking more out of the endowment.
This year, we had budgeted taking only 5 percent of the endowment for the first time in 25 years at Sweet Briar. But that's dependent on getting the gift revenue, so that gift revenue is critical to us.
STEVE KOLOWICH: And you can confirm right now that Sweet Briar will open in fall of 2016?
PHILLIP STONE: I promise it.
STEVE KOLOWICH: Mr. Stone, thank you so much for joining us.
PHILLIP STONE: My pleasure, and thank you for having me.