While the celebration of Sweet Briar’s ongoing operation continues, some have come to the realization that they now must make an important decision.
In the wake of the college announcing in March that it would close, many students made plans to transfer to other colleges while some faculty members accepted jobs at other institutions. Now with Saturday’s announcement that the college will remain open for the 2015-16 academic year, some are struggling to choose whether to stick with their new plans or return to a college that, although they love, still has an uncertain future.
“I’m not entirely sure how I feel,” said rising senior Molly Van Buren, who planned to transfer to Randolph College in the fall. “I would love to stay, but at the same time I don’t know what’s going to happen with money, the classes I’ll need [or] the professors — if they’re coming back or not. It’s just a lot of different factors that are unknown.”
Like Van Buren, many faculty members faced with losing their jobs looked elsewhere for new opportunities. When the news broke in March that Sweet Briar would close, faculty found themselves at the end of most colleges’ hiring cycle.
“The faculty hiring cycle normally starts in the fall of the prior year,” said mathematical sciences professor Camillia Smith Barnes, who also is an alumna of Sweet Briar’s Junior Year in France program. “Most of us were looking for whatever we could find at the last minute there. I was fortunate enough to find a very promising job.”
Smith Barnes had turned down numerous offers to other programs in order to accept a position at Sweet Briar when she completed her doctorate from Harvard in 2009, she said. The 2015-16 year would have been her sixth year with the college, and also the year she would have been eligible to go up for tenure.
On June 1, Smith Barnes started her new position at the University of Sciences and Arts of Oklahoma. The university even put her on an accelerated path for tenure because of her previous experience teaching at Sweet Briar. Once she committed to the university, Smith Barnes said, she decided she would not return to Sweet Briar even if attempts to keep it open were successful.
Smith Barnes and her husband Jay Barnes, who plans to move to Oklahoma to be near his wife in August, said they will miss Sweet Briar and the area — but they look forward to the new opportunities the move presents.
Even with some faculty members leaving, others feel they can fill the teaching needs for students who wish to return.
“Assuming that we have students coming back who needed every major that we offer, [we’ve been] trying to identify what gaps we have ... and in fact, it’s doable,” anthropology professor Deborah Durham said Sunday. “Emeritus faculty have been offering to come back, fill in holes, do some teaching. We’ve been talking about it for weeks and ... we’ve got a lot worked out.”
Durham made no plans to teach elsewhere, since most of the positions she found were for only one year and were located on the opposite side of the country. Instead, she planned to live off her savings and complete a nonstipendiary research position with Harvard University. Now, she said, she no longer needs to worry.
“There’s going to be a lot of hard work,” she said of getting everything ready for the fall semester. “But we’re up for it.”
Saving Sweet Briar Inc., which spearheaded the fundraising campaign to keep Sweet Briar open and under Saturday’s deal will be a major party in deciding how the college moves forward, is aware that both enrollment and staffing are key components for the future success of the school, said Sweet Briar alumna and Saving Sweet Briar member Debbie Thurman.
The organization already has started reaching out to new and old students as well as professors about returning to the university, she said.
“Obviously, we’d love as many as possible to come back, but we are also very aware that this was such an uprooting experience for so many of these students,” Thurman said Sunday. “Those who have followed through with [other] plans and feel that they’ve got a comfortable solution, it’s up to them as to what they want to do. We’re certainly not going to be pushing them to come back.”
The memorandum of understanding on Saturday’s announced plan to keep the college open is scheduled to go before Bedford County Circuit Judge James Updike for approval today.
“We’re all feeling rather celebratory. The wheels are spinning,” Thurman said Sunday. “As you can imagine, we’ve hit the ground running since last night.”
Some students, like Ashley Federico, had made other plans but will cancel them in order to return to Sweet Briar.
Federico had planned to attend James Madison University in the fall, but now hopes to complete her senior year at the college — just as she always dreamed.
“I’m ecstatic because Sweet Briar has been my only school since I was a junior in high school. It was literally the only school I applied to,” she said. “I was over the moon when I heard the news ... it’s where I wanted to graduate.”
The rising senior said she will return as long as she gets some financial assistance from the college and if the majority of professors stay.
But other students have made the tough choice and elected to continue with their plans to attend other schools despite their love for the women’s college.
Rising junior Tory Fairman said she still plans to attend Longwood University in the fall.
“I’m really hoping to go back ... but because the courts have only ruled [for] one year and then [they’ll] go from there. It’s hard to take that leap of faith to go back immediately,” she said.
Fairman, who plans to continue onto graduate school to become a veterinarian, said she needs to stay on track with her academic schedule, but she would consider returning if the biology department remains intact.
But that remains to be seen. Knowing there was a possibility that she might not be able to return, Fairman, who started a Go Fund Me page to raise money for Sweet Briar the day the school announced its closure, bought herself a Sweet Briar class ring before she left.
“There’s going to be future generations of Sweet Briar women that get to go and I can say I helped,” Fairman said. “But no matter where I graduate from, I’ll always be a Sweet Briar woman.”