Sweet Briar: One Year, Pt. 1

Originally, I was going to post this yesterday, but I felt uneasy about it appearing without pt. 2, even for the span of 12-24 hours. So they appear today, together, as they should, because they address the same topic and that topic is Sweet Briar.

If you’re a long-time reader of this blog or you know me at all personally, you know what almost happened to my undergraduate alma mater a year ago on March 3. You know what happened afterward as the alumnae, faculty, staff, and students fought to preserve the institution. And you know eventually the Sweet Briar community prevailed in keeping the college open, if only for another school year.

As you might expect, Sweet Briar has re-appropriated not only March 3 but the entire month as a time of celebration, gratitude, and giving.

I don’t think I had really prepared myself for the expressions of joy, triumph, and relief that flooded my social media as they did last summer when news of the settlement broke. And to be sure, I shared those positive feelings. Like many people, I donated in honor of our success and the college’s continued existence. Like them, I shared my memories of learning the awful news on March 3 and then perhaps the best news I’d ever heard on June 20.

But.

It’s still bittersweet–our family broke up in a way we never expected and some of those people are not coming home. There have been many exciting announcements of faculty and students returning to the college this semester and in the fall. There are many more who will not be.

And the circumstances around the closure still troubling–we will never have the answers we want. The people who so abused our trust will never be held accountable in a meaningful way.

And as I’ve said before, there is still more work to do. In fact, that work will never be finished.

My feelings are perhaps colored by an email I received from another institution I love (you can probably guess which one, but I won’t name it here) about restructuring that needs to happen in its administration. This message was not nearly so dire as the abrupt, unexplained attempted closure of Sweet Briar, but it alluded to possible financial troubles, to the need to adapt to the changing climate of higher ed, to the hope for community support.

It worried me. It reminded me that such places are still vulnerable. Sweet Briar is still vulnerable. While I trust the current administration and their intentions implicitly, my role as a community member hasn’t changed.

The attempted closing raised no few legal questions. Are donors to a nonprofit organization stakeholders? Do they have rights? Do they have duties? From an ethical standpoint, I believe we do have duties, first and foremost the duty to be attentive. To be invested–and not just financially. To hold our administrators, excellent though they currently are, accountable. To want the best for the institution. Not just its survival, but its success. Its progress.

Historically, I have no qualms about being a pain in the ass when it comes to such questions–even when in the throes of revolution against corrupt leadership, I want the rebel leadership to be as transparent and above-board as they can. (I’m a stickler like that.) But it’s more of a challenge now. Shouldn’t I simply be happy and grateful that Sweet Briar survived? Shouldn’t I just be generous and supportive?

I don’t think I can. My affection for the place is unconditional and she will always have my financial support, my energy as a volunteer, and my voice as an advocate. But she will also have my questions, my concerns, and my suggestions. Sometimes I feel like I should apologize for that, but I won’t. It’s the administration’s duty to make compromises, to keep the college afloat, to ask us for every ounce of support we can give. It’s my duty to want Sweet Briar to be the best she can be.

And so I do. So I will–I hope for many years to come.

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