One of my graduate school professors told a story about his first experience teaching ethics.  He assigned a paper on the ethical issues associated with euthanasia, and to his surprise several students turned in papers that had nothing to do with end-of-life issues (euthanasia) but rather discussed the ethical challenges faced by children and teenagers in places like Vietnam and Myanmar (youth in Asia).

I was reminded of that story twice last month. When I checked into the hospital for surgery on Tuesday, March 3, one of the first questions I was asked was whether I have a living will and a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order.  Had I been paranoid or a member of the Tea Party I might have seen sinister motives or Obamacare Death Panels behind those questions, but chose instead to hope they were perfunctory rather than foreboding.

Later that day when my anesthesia wore off and I checked my e-mail for the first time, I saw the stunning news that Sweet Briar College had announced that it will close at the end of the school year.

The Sweet Briar family is currently going through its own stages of grief—shock, denial, finger-pointing, fund-raising, and lawsuits. Just in the past week a Chronicle of Higher Education article described the Board meeting, held not on campus but at a Washington hotel, where the conclusion was reached that Sweet Briar must close. Saving Sweet Briar, an alumnae group formed in opposition to the closure, called for the Board and President to resign and convinced the attorney for Amherst County in Virginia, where Sweet Briar is located, to file suit seeking to prevent Sweet Briar from closing.  The group has raised $3 million in pledges, far short of the $250 million the Board estimates would be required to keep the college afloat.  At the same time, a friend who is the transfer coordinator for a public university in Virginia is spending a majority of his time working with Sweet Briar students needing to transfer.

I feel for the Sweet Briar community—students, alumni, faculty and staff—and what it is dealing with in the aftermath of the announcement.  I can’t imagine what it must be like for one’s alma mater to exist no longer, and I particularly feel for an old friend who served as Dean of Admissions for many years and was a wonderful ambassador for the college.

 I described the Sweet Briar announcement as unprecedented in an interview for an Education Week blog.  I can’t remember another institution deciding to close without previous signs that it was terminally ill (if I’ve missed another example, I trust that readers will let me know). 

Several others interviewed for the same story called Sweet Briar the “canary in the coal mine,” a harbinger of other colleges that will be forced to close.  If that’s the case (which I’m not ready to concede), which mine?  Small liberal arts colleges? Women’s colleges?  Colleges located in rural areas? 

While there was no advance warning that Sweet Briar was on the brink of closing, several economic vital signs pointed to serious illness. Its enrollment had dropped to 523, its discount rate was 62%, and it was dipping into unrestricted endowment to pay its bills.

I suspect the seeds of Sweet Briar’s decline have been present for a long time.  In my first year as a high school counselor, back in the mid-1980’s, I had two girls apply there Early Decision.  Neither was a strong student, but coming from a strong independent school should have been solid candidates.  Sweet Briar ultimately admitted both, but only after acting as if it was doing a huge favor to both me and the girls.  I was young and inexperienced, but not stupid, and when I checked Sweet Briar’s admissions statistics I saw that it had turned down fewer than 80 applicants in the previous admissions cycle.  Sweet Briar was one of several Southern women’s colleges that were masterful at maintaining the illusion of selectivity and prestige.  If that was at one time a strength, it may have turned to a weakness, preventing Sweet Briar from addressing systemic, long-term issues.

That begs a more important question, which is whether there is anything Sweet Briar could have done to change its fate.  Is Sweet Briar’s situation a product of mistakes or mismanagement, or simply an instance of a product for which there is no longer a sufficient demand?

From an ethical perspective, the Sweet Briar situation is most interesting as a case of institutional euthanasia.  Is closing Sweet Briar killing the college or letting it die?  Who has the right to pull the plug on a living institution?  Which is more important, maintaining Sweet Briar’s existence at any cost or maintaining a certain quality of life?  Does a venerable institution deserve death with dignity, and what does that look like?

Such questions are difficult and even painful in the field of medical ethics.  What amount of treatment is reasonable given a patient’s condition at the end of life, and what treatments merely delay death?  Who is capable of giving informed consent in a situation that is emotional?  Should quality of life be a consideration, or is life itself sacred, regardless of quality?  These questions have scientific, theological, and public policy significance.

The questions are no less perilous when it comes to closing a college.  Sweet Briar’s Board and administration have been criticized for the secretive process leading to the decision.  Certainly the suddenness of the announcement and the lack of consultation with stakeholders are unfortunate, and yet may have been unavoidable. 

The Board has also been criticized for failure to execute its duty of stewardship by not turning over every leaf to keep the college in operation.  From everything I’ve read, though, it is clear that Sweet Briar is not just ill, but terminally ill. Sweet Briar might be able to stay open for several more years of decline or could perhaps follow the path that other struggling colleges have taken by targeting a different clientele and changing its mission.  But does Sweet Briar best honor its proud history by fighting to the bitter end or by choosing death with dignity?