The effort to save Sweet Briar College succeeded; it has been a wake up that a well-funded, well-respected and well-financed historic college could be taken to the brink by a greedy, incompetent board. No one thought anyone would have the gumption to do such a thing, and almost pull it off. Certainly people can be incompetent, but this went way beyond it.
The day before the announcement of the settlement with the Attorney General, Elizabeth MacDonald of Fox Business wrote a long, factual research piece on Sweet Briar that put all the other facts in perspective, and told exactly how the board ruined the school, and offered some explanations and ideas for the future. It is an important piece that anyone who cares about education should read.
Taking Things for Granted
Part of the problem with Sweet Briar was that people took it for granted. The alums just assumed it would always be there, and they could go to their five-year reunions, send checks, and it would all be fine. The locals took Sweet Briar for granted, too. The State Council for Higher Education and federal education agencies never really had a grip on what was going on, and they missed it. Even the Attorney General and Governor of Virginia were absent until forced.
That is not a criticism of Sweet Briar alums; we all take our institutions for granted. Even the media, for when the media (i.e. Hawes Spencer, and then others) began to dig, aided by social media, things began to change.
Today, across the world, we are living in an entirely different era than our forefathers. It is a time when so many of our companies are untrustworthy, our governments are mostly corrupt, our school districts are unresponsive and so many of our cultural institutions and entertainment companies are peddling trash. Our churches struggle. No one trusts anything. Our leading universities are swimming along in the mess, in some cases propelling it on and in other cases just moving with the fetid tide.
While things always seem to be better in the past, and the worst ever in the present, these days are worse in some regards, even as our life expectancy is longer than ever in history, and we have more material wealth than any people at any time history. As difficult as it was during World War II, at least all of the institutions of the U.S. and U.K. were behind the effort, and knew who the enemy was.
Many do not think the situation is dire, but I would say to look at what happened to Sweet Briar.
The situation with Sweet Briar was easy to diagnose; the closure announcement happened immediately, and shocked the alums into action. That is the opposite of most other institutional failures, which take decades to ruin, and then disappear. This is the situation with other school failures, including the recent closure of St. Paul’s, a historically black college in Virginia, and Blackstone College, which closed in 1950 but educated the likes of Bea Arthur and Violeta Chamorro. Other smaller colleges have closed as well but have happier endings; Southern Seminary was rescued by the Mormons as Southern Virginia University.
I have commended to so many people Mayor Tomlinson’s speech to Sweet Briar’s graduating class. She is a graduate who is part of the fight to save the school, but her larger message is about fighting for things that are important, and fighting for a great educational institution. Please take the time to listen, though you need to set aside some time, as it is long.
Watching this reminds us that each of us has multiple “Sweet Briars” that we need to monitor. This is not a left or right issue; instead it is an issue of our common heritage. We must come to the table, call that person, attend that meeting, gripe about that injustice and fix that corruption.
Perhaps if each of takes on the institutions in our sphere, we can survive this era in a sane way. What exactly would this entail? Not much more that what we do already, but on a more methodical basis. Perhaps if we do not have the connections and time to change the culture of, for instance, Comcast or our large state university, a reasonable first step might be to look up the board of directors for each, pray for them, and write a thoughtful, mailed letter when there is an issue that arises.
How about if we go beyond being fans or consumers, and assert ourselves? Let’s look what this might mean. Below is a list of ideas, not that everyone has to do everyone, but as a reminder of what old fashioned civic engagement was about.
- Schools: We get engaged with our children’s classroom and do inane PTA parties at Halloween, but are we involved in the entire arc of our local education system? If you attended or send your kids to private schools, are you familiar with the members of the board of trustees, and are you engaging with them? Are they decent folk? If you send kids to public schools, are you occasionally observing the School Board by name, and talking to your school board member, curriculum specialists, and other policy makers to make sure what is being taught to your city’s children is right, and moral? Have you actually asked the school about textbooks?
- Universities: Do you know who is on the board of your alma mater, and are they doing the right things, and are you involved in more than a cursory fashion?
- Companies: In our own companies, we do our best for our boss. But in a larger sphere, are we aware of our own industries, and are we upholding the values we expect of our bosses at our business associations, conferences, chamber and Rotary meetings?
- Investments: Many of us are passive in our investments, relying upon mutual funds or index funds or pensions. However, in an earlier time, many in our grandparents era were knowledgeable and followed dividend companies that they held stock in. They actually voted the proxies, occasionally attended the meetings and took seriously the title Shareholder of Record. What if each of us monitored two or three of our long-held favorite stocks for matters that concern us? Again, this is not an argument for a particular agenda in shareholder activism or against index funds; instead it is a plea for us to go beyond silly “Divest!” slogans and begin to engage with a few select companies on a deeper level.
- Banks: Banks are of a different class than other companies. Do you know your branch manager? Is it possible to support a local bank? Do you really need all of your accounts at Wells Fargo or Bank of America? Why not move an account to a local county bank? Why not buy some penny stock in the new start up local bank as a gesture of faith?
- Government: It’s fine to call you your representative when asked. But do you really know who represents you in the county or city? Have you actually attended a meeting so you know the faces, if only to get their cards and thank them in person for their help? Do local boards reflect your values? Be an observer.
- Churches: Yours truly works for a local Episcopal Diocese. I see, over and over again, the same people doing so much of the boards, commissions and committees. They get weary. Each of us has individual denominations and churches that are dear to us. Even if it is as lame as looking up your old childhood church on Facebook and liking it, go ahead and do it. Ditto with your denomination, diocese or presbytery or convention. Never has it been SO easy to engage with our Faith. Get involved and reclaim your church, or it may not be there for the next generation.
- Culture: Are you involved in at least one museum, arts group or library? Are you attending their openings? Taking the kids? Go, and support it at least one.
- Charities: Find a charity that is actually doing something local, and support it. Even small donations are welcomed, as they prove to larger donors that an organization has a wide base of support. Some might disagree with what is happening with Boy Scouts. Go beyond complaining, and gather up others to join local councils and run for an office in your district. If you have a passion for feeding the hungry, find an official role at your local food bank or chapter. Believe me, they need volunteers who want to do more than serve turkey on Thanksgiving.
- Languishing organizations: There are dozens of local clubs and organizations that are starved for members and new energy. Find one that is struggling, and use it as a forum to involve yourself in the community.
- Media: It used to be that you took the newspaper and wrote a letter to the editor; that was citizenship. Today, you might also follow certain sites and bloggers. Do you support your favorite radio stations and news outlets? Take them seriously. Can you feed news to your local weekly paper about your civic organization?
- Other: For some, Little League and clubs like 4-H are important. It is important to be involved with these causes, if it is meaningful. But if you are, do not neglect the larger picture. There is no need for you to be a worker bee for others’ ill conceived plans and ideas. Go up the organization, to make sure the local chapters are responding. One thing I did not mention is sports, both professional and amateur. Sports gets plenty of attention and involvement already. It does not need more.
All of this might seem a bit obvious, and dire. But the reality is that even if you do not believe that the situation is dire, being involved makes a good thing better. There is no downside.