Monday, November 9, 2015

Why Did The Women’s College Die?

By Professor Doom

     I’m looking at the downfall of Sweet Briar College, a fine women’s school with a stellar reputation, which, without warning, announced it was closing its doors tout-suite, no need to ask where the money went, or so admin advises.

     I think asking about the money is a good idea, but faculty rarely are blessed with true information. Luckily, a trustee of the school is willing to discuss some of what went on behind the scenes. So let’s get on with the trustee’s version of events:

“During the five-year term of the Presidency of Jo Ellen Parker, rather than none, all critical decisions were made by a small subset of the Executive Committee of which Ms. Dalton was a part.

--Dalton was on the board of directors and chair of the governance committee.

    So, the board of trustees was quickly whittled down. I can’t help but suspect that the trustees that had integrity and were indeed trustworthy were not on the Executive Plundering Committee. I know, that sounds cynical, but with close to $100,000,000 missing and obvious mismanagement, I have to be a bit suspicious.

     Dalton is correct that no board member was ‘fired’ per se, although I was asked to resign (and did so in June 2014) by the Chairman for unspecified reasons, and his decision was ratified by the Executive Committee.

“Five other members resigned over the previous two years out of frustration at the ham-handed, myopic and dictatorial way board affairs were conducted.

“…As far as senior staff positions are concerned, during President Parker’s term, the vice president of finance resigned. The academic dean of the faculty resigned. The director of development resigned. Two successive deans of admissions resigned. Two successive directors of marketing resigned… 

…In short, every senior staff position was replaced, some twice, in a five-year period.”

     I’ve mentioned before how you can tell when a school is being plundered—shady deals, no-confidence votes by faculty, and huge Poo Bah pay are obvious signs, as well as bloating administration and dwindling faculty. I forgot another sign: high turnover of administration and faculty.

      In the two years where my state school transformed from legitimate to bogus (after receiving accreditation), we lost a Chief Financial Officer, Vice Chancellor, Marketing Officer, and several other administrators, in addition to at least five faculty…this is high turnover for a small school. When you see this many people scrambling to escape,  it’s a sign that the people with integrity are seeing the ship sinking, and making prudent plans.

      The people that remain are usually pretty desperate for their jobs…they won’t make waves as the pirates plunder away.

     The other signs of plundering are here as well:

Contrary to Ms. Dalton’s recollection, no administrative positions were eliminated but an additional one was created, that of chief of staff.

We did have a planned program, introduced by Parker, to reduce faculty over a five-year period from a ratio of 8 to 1 to 10 to 1.

     --I again want to point out, removing just a few administrators would have offset the decline in the student base. And…shouldn’t you need less facilitators for the students when there are less students?

      Again, growth in administration, reduction in faculty…these are not rare signs in higher education. Our leaders in higher education work hard to justify their useless but highly paid jobs, and Sweet Briar was no exception:

The “Plan for Sustainable Excellence” (only the third strategic plan in seven years) did involve the entire college over a two-year period and it was, in fact, endorsed by the full board, some of whom were just happy to not hear any more platitudinous fluff replete with unrealistic numbers.

     Ah, the Vision for Excellence idiocy I’ve written of before. Administrators spend collectively thousands of hours on insane, grandiose, ridiculous plans, which they roll out every few years. Then they shelve them, never to show them again, and work on another insane, grandiose, ridiculous plan. 
     Most students and faculty never get to see all the details of the plan, but I was lucky enough to get to look at one in detail (I asked a lot of questions before leaving that school…). To give just one example, my own school’s Vision for Excellence plan involved multiple playing fields, and a stadium that could hold 5,000 people. The school had less than 1,000 students on campus…and the town the school was in had a population of 1,200…it was sheer gibbering madness to believe we’d ever fill a stadium of that size, particularly since the school has no sports in any form (and still doesn’t…). I’ll spare the gentle reader the rest of the details, and re-assert that these plans are grandiose to the point of ridiculousness. Administrators don’t care, they just need a plan to justify their jobs.

     This is what all those administrators spend much of their time on, making Sweet Briar’s “leadership” so busy it was unable to deal with a 2% loss per year of the student base, over the course of 5 years, a loss that could have been compensated by paring down the administration a tad.

      So many classic signs that something was going on here, it’s a shame the trustee, like most trustees, has never served as faculty at a school. If so, he could have seen what was coming:

“…all board members were specifically instructed not to contact a member of the Senior Staff without first obtaining permission of the relevant committee chair and the president. They even brought in a coach from the Association of Governing Boards (AGB), an organization solely funded by the presidential budgets of our nation’s colleges, to reinforce this stifling of involvement.

“As I can personally attest, those who even accidentally violated this rule were reprimanded by the president.”

     Ah, the seal of silence, and again, I’ve written of this before. The primary purpose of the seal of silence is to allow lies to be told, with nobody in a position to correct them, lest they risk breaking that seal. As soon as you hear “ok, stop talking to other people” you know that there are some lies going around, lies that could be quickly resolved if people were allowed to talk openly to each other.

      The former trustee believes the school could have been saved but for the poor leadership of the Poo Bah, but I suspect there’s more to it than that. I hope some independent investigators will take a long hard look at where the money went, and I’ll certainly suggest looking at the finances of the Poo Bah and the Executive Board, because much like with another plundered school, the numbers just don’t add up. 

     No discussion of a school’s failure is complete without mentioning how accreditation failed. Every single fraud, every single scandal, every single failure in higher education always has the “if accreditors did their job, this wouldn’t have happened” clause:

Regardless of board size, the SACS--which accredits Sweet Briar and other southern colleges and schools--has as one of its "core requirements" that "The board is not controlled by a minority of board members..." What Mr. Leslie describes is a board that had, indeed, evolved into a body that was controlled by a minority of its members. I think a case might be made that this board as it was operating when Mr. Leslie resigned was in violation of that accreditation requirement.

      I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve identified the useless, bogus, nature of accreditation as a hugely contributing factor to the decay of higher education. Could Sweet Briar be saved by attentive accreditation? A moot point, as there are no penalties for violating accreditation anyway (probably why I’ve seen every accreditation rule violated with impunity, except payment of accrediting fees).

      One last comment that gives a fair assessment of what happened to Sweet Briar:

700 women can't support enough administrators, so it's time to close.  
Very sad.

     I can’t help but think of my friend, a former faculty of Sweet Briar; he only dropped hints of what he saw, but it was enough for him to throw his mathematics Ph.D. in the trash and get away from higher education. He was obviously much smarter than I am, and I should have followed his example. Staying in higher education may well have been a big mistake for me, but I’ll accept my mistake and go down swinging all the same.

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