Losing an Old Dominion Institution: The Closing of Sweet Briar College
On February 28, 2015, the board of directors of Sweet Briar College in Virginia announced that the school will be closing due to “insurmountable financial challenges.” Sweet Briar’s 106th and likely final commencement ceremony was held on May 16, 2015. The closing announcement was met with shock from current students and alumnae alike — and from AAUW, as we have many historical connections with the college.
Sweet Briar was founded in 1901 through the legacy of Indiana Fletcher Williams. Williams left her entire estate to found a school for young women in memory of her daughter, Daisy, who had died at the age of 16.
Emilie Watts McVea, president of the college from 1916 to 1925, was an early leader of the Southern Association of College Women, one of the predecessor organizations of AAUW. She served on the association board as secretary and treasurer. Later in the 20th century, two AAUW presidents also served as presidents of Sweet Briar: Meta Glass (1925–46 Sweet Briar president) and Anne Gary Pannell (1950–71 Sweet Briar president).
In 1921, Sweet Briar joined AAUW’s list of accredited institutions, becoming fully approved by the association. This meant that the college had met all of the standards set forth by AAUW in regards to the quality of education for women. It also made Sweet Briar alumnae eligible to become members of AAUW.
Academically accredited schools like Sweet Briar were hugely important for women at that time. Many schools calling themselves colleges for women were operating in the South but they did not truly offer academic study and instead functioned more like finishing schools. In addition, Virginia women faced limited choices for higher education in their home state. The public university, the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, only admitted women to a few graduate and professional programs. In fact, it did not become fully coeducational until 1970! And until the mid-20th century, the state had yet to establish a public coordinate college for women, despite many (failed) attempts. This did not happen until 1944 at the Mary Washington College at Fredericksburg (today’s University of Mary Washington).
We also shouldn’t forget the many studious women whose AAUW fellowships and grants brought them to Sweet Briar. Women like Elizabeth Jansma from the Netherlands, who was a part of the inaugural class of AAUW’s International Study Grants in 1945. Just 18 at the time, Jansma had been through much in her short lifetime: During World War II, members of her family had been arrested by the Gestapo. In addition to AAUW’s grant, the college also awarded her a tuition scholarship. She studied art history at Sweet Briar and returned to the Netherlands to pursue graduate work at the University of Amsterdam. In an AAUW report, she said her experience at Sweet Briar changed her from “a scared war child into a happy, hopeful human being.” And she reflected on her experience as a student in an AAUW Journal issue in 1946: “Most of the girls I have met at Sweet Briar College had a strong sense of duty and were exact and careful students with a vivid interest in everything about them. I cannot thank you enough for this wonderful year of study in the United States, just as I cannot sum up all its profits to me because there is simply too much.”
Many people have lamented the closing of Sweet Briar; others have feared that similar women’s colleges will follow suit. Since the announcement, there has also been a considerable fight on the part of alumnae to raise the necessary funds to keep the college open. No matter what the future holds, we’re proud that AAUW and Sweet Briar have shared a mission to support women’s higher education over the last 114 years.