Will Not Let You Go. (Let Me Go!)

I don’t know if you have been following the story about the planned shutdown of Sweet Briar College, an all-women’s school in Virginia. I have been keeping an eye on the situation for the last month, having initially seen it as a positive example for non-profit organizations. Since then, the situation has evolved to the point where I am not sure if it is a positive example any longer, but can still provide some lessons.

When Sweet Briar College first announced they were going to close down, the news was generally well received. A decision to close had been made before things had gotten particularly dire. The school planned on using its endowment to provide severance packages to employees and assist students in transitioning to other schools.

All in all, it seemed like a responsible move in terms of attempting to soften the blow for employees and students rather than making an abrupt announcement that left people panicking.

Since I have written on the benefits of starting an arts organization with a definite expiration date in mind, I appreciated that they were looking to cease operations in a relatively constructive way with an opportunity to liquidate or pass on assets while they retained some value.

Later, various constituencies came together to try to save the school and called for the resignation of the president and board of trustees for not living up to their responsibilities and not exploring other funding avenues. Non-Profit Quarterly drew comparisons to other recent examples of board action, including the planned closure of San Diego Opera, where the stakeholders said not so fast and changed the outcome.

I am not going to suggest that any of these popular actions were wrong or just delaying the inevitable. However, as I thought about this in the context of the earlier idea about organizations with expiration dates, I wondered the idea were possible in practice.

Essentially, can you quit while you are still on top? When you reach the planned point to wind things down, will there be push back from people suggesting it would be irresponsible to abandon a project that so successfully serves the community? Especially if there is not a similar entity present to transfer resources to which could potentially pick up the work.

Is it in human nature that we have an easier time accepting the need to buy a new car before the current one falls apart than we have deciding to dissolve an organization? Basically, does the organization have to be further along in its decline before we will give it up?

This was what was on my mind as something I might write a blog post about until the most recent twist in the Sweet Briar College situation. It seems that the college accepted a million dollar estate gift about two weeks before they decided to close the school. The letter accepting this gift is being used in a lawsuit against the school.

This struck a real chord with me because December 23, 2013, I received a letter soliciting a donation from the Trey McIntyre Project. Then in January 2014, there came the news that the dance company was being disbanded as of June 2014. At the time, I wondered at the timing of the solicitation since they surely knew they were moving toward this decision.

Yet the letter read,

“As we look towards the new year, we are driven to educate more minds and heal more bodies through the vehicle of Trey’s art and the talent of our dancers. We need your financial support to make it happen.”

While the organization technically hasn’t closed, but rather has shifted its focus in other directions that doesn’t include the dance company, that solicitation email implies the dancers will be part of the future.

I have frequently praised the company in my blog entries, including praising them for quitting while they were still on top. That solicitation email has obviously stuck in my mind as a false note. But I think it goes to illustrate that every organization is going to make its missteps.

As to how big Sweet Briar College’s missteps ultimately end up being, that remains to be seen. There are likely more lessons to come that one can derive lessons from so the situation will bear watching.

The title of this post is, of course, inspired by one of the greatest songs of all time. Which you now long to listen to


About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


1 thought on “Will Not Let You Go. (Let Me Go!)”

  1. Perhaps as a followup, you might want to talk about the transition of “Shakespeare Santa Cruz” into “Santa Cruz Shakespeare” after the University gave up on “Shakespeare Santa Cruz” for its inability to reduce its debt. The forward-funding model that “Santa Cruz Shakespeare” is using is unusual in the theater world.


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