In rare instances, a consulting firm like ours is called into action to assist a school or college that is spiraling downward and needs to be repositioned. When we show up at the scene, demand has been declining, employee morale is waning, and the school is shell-shocked about the daunting task of rebuilding a future. It is a worrysome scenario and one that few schools or colleges really ever experience.
Sweetbriar College, the fine, heritage-laden women's college in Virginia, recently made the decision to close their doors. Faced with declining demand in perhaps the most competitive state in higher education in the nation, Sweetbriar determined that they could no longer preserve their core mission: educating women. Sure, there were probably other choices to make in order to stay alive, from moving to a coeducational platform, expanding online or other services, or moving into a whole new market. But, it appears that the powers at Sweetbriar selected to honor their long-standing mission. And, if they could no longer do that, they might be better off not in existence.
When faced with challenging times, we often find that schools and colleges must make a difficult choice. Should they work hard to preserve their organization - at any cost - even if it means altering their mission? Or, should they preserve their mission - at any cost - when it means that they might be in jeapordy of closing if it no longer intersects with the market? There are certainly a lot of factors that figure into the right solution for each organization.
From my vantage point, I like the decision that Sweetbriar made in this instance. It seems to me that if you believe fully in your mission, and your mission is deemed no longer relevant, then most organizations no longer have a reason for existence. Sure, some can reinvent themselves with some new platform, but the reality is that their long-standing mission no longer intersects with market opportunity.
As Jared Diamond once said, independent schools and colleges "do not have the divine right for existence". They must demonstrate their relevance to the marketplace everyday. I am all for preserving the organization only if the mission still matters.