Update: A reset is coming to Sweet Briar College that will change the core curriculum, reduce tuition and abolish traditional academic departments in favor of three collaborative interdisciplinary centers.
The academic calendar also will undergo a major change, moving from traditional 15-week semesters to a system of periods consisting of 12 weeks of classes and three weeks of experiential learning, to offer students a chance to pursue internships, research and study-abroad opportunities.
Formally announced Wednesday, the changes come after a summer of deliberation.
President Meredith Woo, who joined the college in May, said the changes came at the recommendation of a faculty-led academic task force, which included students, staff and alumnae.
Now that those proposals have emerged, Sweet Briar officials are fine-tuning the details.
“They’ll be working very closely through the rest of the year to implement the change,” Woo said.
The changes are set to begin at the start of the 2018-19 academic year next fall.
Teresa Tomlinson, a 1987 Sweet Briar graduate and now chair of the current SBC Board of Directors, described the changes as bold.
“This is exactly what we’ve been waiting for,” Tomlinson said.
Following the attempted closure of Sweet Briar in 2015 and the subsequent rescue by alumnae — thanks to a legal victory to keep the college open and millions in donations — Tomlinson said the board and school officials had spent their time “getting the house in order.” That included taking an inventory of assets, trimming fat from the budget and renegotiating contracts to save the college $7 million, as well as investing in foundational items such as new enrollment software, and bringing in new leadership to drive Sweet Briar forward.
With the “house in order,” as Tomlinson put it, that allowed the Sweet Briar brain trust in the academic task force to develop this plan.
Instead of relying on consultants, the college looked inward.
“We had the experts on hand to facilitate this discussion,” Tomlinson said.
According to a Sweet Briar news release, faculty proposals for the revised core curriculum, with an emphasis on women’s leadership, will “include a first-year research experience, ethics of leadership, financial literacy, rhetoric and communication, and a capstone requirement.”
Changes to tuition come in the form of a 32 percent cut, with overall attendance costs — including room, board and fees — dropping from $50,055, according to the SBC website, to $34,000. That reduction makes the cost of attending Sweet Briar more competitive with the commonwealth’s flagship public universities and provides a clear-cut understanding of tuition costs.
Though tuition varies by program at the University of Virginia, annual undergraduate costs hover around $30,000, according to the school’s website. At Virginia Tech, overall annual costs for in-state students are roughly $22,000.
Both Tomlinson and Woo noted despite the cost listed by the college, students typically paid less due to grants and scholarships.
“You go through this needlessly complicated process, and no one is paying the sticker price,” Tomlinson said.
At the time of its near closing in 2015, Sweet Briar had an endowment of $77.4 million. According to figures provided earlier this year by Tim Klocko, Sweet Briar vice president for finance and treasurer, the endowment was valued at $71.2 million at the end of 2016. Alumnae donations of more than $25 million also have buoyed Sweet Briar in the aftermath of the attempted closure.
Another shift for Sweet Briar is the dissolution of its 20 traditional academic departments at the college. The departments will be converted into three “centers of excellence,” according to the news release. Those three centers are engineering, science and technology in society; human and environmental sustainability; and creativity, design and the arts.
The three centers will tie into what Woo identified as strengths of Sweet Briar, such as its engineering program, the natural environment that surrounds the 3,250-acre campus and its proximity to the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, which leases land from the college.
Woo also expects the move to enhance interdisciplinary collaboration and reduce bureaucracy.
“Departments are only an administrative unit. We at Sweet Briar don’t believe it serves us any purpose to continuously create bureaucracy and layers of administrative units; so being able to do effective, streamlined measures in the context of three centers of excellence, I think is a good way to go to flatten out the organization of the college and to reduce costs,” Woo said.
With that move, there likely will be changes to some majors offered by Sweet Briar.
“Some majors will stay, others will become more interdisciplinary,” Woo said.
Current students will not lose their majors if any are eliminated.
Since the details still are being ironed out, Woo did not specify which majors are subject to change.
Woo described the coming schedule change as a shift toward experiential learning, which not only would provide opportunities for students but also open the doors at Sweet Briar to visiting lecturers.
“It creates a kind of flexibility where we can have policy makers, artists, practitioners of their fields come to campus and participate in learning and teaching. This enables us to tap resources beyond the existing faculty strengths, to provide diversity of experience and expertise for our students,” Woo said.
Woo added she was unaware of another college with the same schedule as proposed by SBC.
Schedules outside of the traditional 15-week semester are rare, according to a 2010 study from Hanover Research Council, titled “Alternate Academic Calendars and the Trimester System: Profiles and Compliance,” which explored academic calendar trends and practices in higher education.
Overall, slightly more than 81 percent of U.S. colleges and universities offer 15-week semesters.
Woo said faculty and staff members continue to fine tune proposals that emerged from the academic task force and expects more details to emerge later this year, likely in December.
“All the details have to be in place so we can begin implementing it and be ready for students coming in fall of 2018,” Woo said.
Sweet Briar began its 112th academic year this fall with an incoming class of 95 new students, bringing total enrollment to roughly 300, according to the Sweet Briar website.