My alma mater is fighting for its life. The President of nine months and his board dropped a surprise bomb on March 3, by e-mail, announcing that Sweet Briar College would finish up this last quarter, and after 114 years, would shut its doors forever this summer due to insurmountable financial problems and troubling trends. This was a total shock to everyone. Just the previous November, an 8.8 million dollar library addition had been dedicated. At the dedication a speaker exclaimed the addition represented “the glorious evolution of Sweet Briar.”
My heart pounded later that March 3rd, as I listened to a one hour conference call, while staring at my annual fund drive envelope sitting on my desk. I realized at that moment, that if I had sent in my check it would have been used for the “winding down” expenses. My money would have been used to help finance what felt like an assassination. I listened to the President, but could barely process his words. I felt betrayed and angry, and at the same time strangely calm as I thought to myself, “Nope...this shall not come to pass.”
I sent the envelope, and instead of a check, sent a note explaining that this year the check would be going to the movement to save Sweet Briar instead of destroy her. Within hours my like-minded sisters began to organize. Social media went wild. “Councils of war” were convened. Thanks to Brooke Linville, a grad from Boise Idaho, the website was up and running almost immediately. There is now a very well-organized movement to save Sweet Briar College. You can find it online at SavingSweetBriar.com.
If you go to the website, you can read the early findings of a Certified Fraud Examiner, and read a demand letter from Troutman Sanders, LLC of Richmond, to the current college President and Board of Directors, seeking their resignation. According to preliminary findings, no financial crisis currently exists that would prevent Sweet Briar from remaining open. And, in fact, according to the examiner’s, in the last fiscal year, the net worth of Sweet Briar has actually improved. The faculty has joined the movement to save Sweet Briar, and students have cautiously and anonymously protested. A documentary film has been crowd-funded and filming is underway.
For those who do not know her, Sweet Briar College is a small, liberal arts, women’s college near Lynchburg, Virginia. The college sits on over 3,200 acres of stunning Virginia farm land. It has intimate class sizes, with lots of teacher-student interaction. It has historic buildings, and no sororities, but lots of clubs and traditions. It has had a riding program nearly from the beginning. And while only about one quarter to one third of the students actually participate in the program, the program is a great draw for students. I should know.
I came all the way from Los Angeles County to attend Sweet Briar solely due to its riding program, and to study with the Director of the program at that time, Paul Cronin. So, let me first tell you about the program, and why it is critical to protect and preserve it along with the college.
Sweet Briar has deep connections with the early masters of forward-seat riding, in particular, with Vladimir Littauer. When you arrive, as I did, without any real theoretical background beyond my Pony Club manual (which was a good start), you are like a new recruit and made to submit to “the system.” No matter how wealthy or modest your background, you start from the bottom and work your way up. You read, and test, and prove yourself on the back of a horse. (There really is a jump field called “The Proving Grounds.”) There were no shortcuts. It is a system of meritocracy, but a system that works beautifully. It is also a system that allows for simple hacking and pleasure riding, as well as a system for those who want to soak up and advance their skills as much as they can in those four short years.
I was one of the latter group.
While at Sweet Briar, riding only school horses, I had the thrill of fox-hunting and “Hunt Meet Pair Racing” where we learned how to condition our hunt horses and ride in the club races that are run at Steeplechase meets. I also competed on the school’s Eventing team, competing in area horse trials. I did some Intercollegiate shows, and local hunter shows, and had a semester re-schooling a project horse. I learned how to organize and teach a riding lesson and how to start a young horse. I took a class in Equine Science and still refer to my notebook from that class. I was tested on theory, tested on stable management, tested on the flat and over fences, and tested in managing a group ride. In short, Sweet Briar College offered a rare and wonderful thing: a traditional school of horsemanship. And it offered it on a large unspoiled tract of land that is a commodity rapidly disappearing.
But while at Sweet Briar, something happened that I never expected. The horse-crazy obsessed girl, became almost (not quite, but almost) as interested in her studies. I; the one who never wanted to join or lead anything but a trail ride, became co-editor of the school literary magazine. I became an R.A., ran the photography studio, won a short story contest, and had such long intense discussions after dinner that the staff had to flick the lights on and off in the refectory to get us to leave.
And then there were the friendships. My roommate and I are still best friends, call each other “sister,” talk often, and ride together when we can. There are no strangers in such a small place. Little moments stand out, like the unforgettable night three of us sat on a cross-country jump in the moonlight and sang songs. Or the time hiking around the lake looking for the fastest route for a Hunter pace we got terribly lost. No men. No problem. Monday through Friday was all about us. You never deferred to a man. You learned if a leader emerged it was going to be a woman. And sometimes, that leader needed to be you. But, weekends were different! I met my husband my freshman year. Last year we celebrated 35 years of marriage.
It was a brief four years to be in a safe and beautiful place and try on pieces of adulthood before we stepped out into full adulthood. Of course, it takes looking back to realize what a lucky group we were (and how lucky the current students are).
As a Sweet Briar graduate who rode at least five days a week for all four years, I always bristle when people make assumptions about “that horsey college on the hill.” Because, clearly anyone who sneers about Sweet Briar has never set foot on campus or taken note of the caliber of women who have earned the right to “wear the rose.” What is critically important to me now though is that future generations of women will be allowed to earn that right.
Karen Jaffa McGoldrick
Sweet Briar Class of 1979
Author of The Dressage Chronicles