In March 2015, Sweet Briar College (SBC), a women’s liberal arts college in Virginia with more than a century of history, suddenly announced its planned closure. The reason was the financial constraint arising with the decline of student numbers. SBC had not been thought of in such a serious circumstance. So, the news caused considerable shock, and brought about fiery discussions in many media on the sustainability of private colleges. However, the difficulty of sustainable operation of liberal arts colleges has been widely recognized, particularly those small, women’s colleges located in a rural area like SBC. Many alumni, staff, and students did not support the closure. They created a non-profit organization, Saving Sweet Briar, and fought to overturn the shutdown. They eagerly raised funds for the survival, and sued the leadership of SBC. In June, both sides agreed to recall the closure. It looked like SBC was saved by people’s affection and dedication.
How can we see this process? What factors split their decisions? Did SSB rise up only because people did not want to see the death of their beloved institution? People who supported SBC’s survival shared the general circumstances of financial difficulty. However, each side depended upon totally different indicators to support their allegations. The former leadership’s long- term future plan looked faithfully based on SBC’s original financial data. On the other, SSB did not agree with that, and insisted on SBC’s sustainability by presenting some optimistic indicators created by multiple outside institutions. It is not an easy question which insistences had legitimacy. Rather, the SBC case demonstrated how it is difficult to handle private colleges’ financial circumstances.
About eighty percent of Japanese universities are private, and almost the same percentage of students take private higher education. For us, what is happening in private colleges in the U.S. is not a fire on the opposite shore. It contains many implications to think about sustainability of private higher education in a competitive market. In 2018, SBC remains in operation, and strives to make its recovery more stable. Time will reveal what will go on with SBC and other liberal arts colleges as well.