Carnegie Museums president at center of controversy over Sweet Briar College closure
From 2009 to 2014, Jo Ellen Parker led the all-female school, which is closing in fiscal distress. Critics and supporters are debating her legacy.
June 7, 2015 12:00 AM
In her office overseen by a portrait of Andrew Carnegie, Jo Ellen Parker is the 10th President and CEO of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.
Meridith De Avila Khan/Sweet Briar College
Former Sweet Briar College president Jo Ellen Parker speaks with faculty members in August 2013 following opening convocation.
Jo Ellen Parker, head of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.
By Marylynne Pitz / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In August, Jo Ellen Parker arrived in Pittsburgh and became the 10th president of Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh and the first woman to lead the nonprofit consortium.
A Midwesterner from Olathe, Kan., outside of Kansas City, the 61-year-old academic was previously president of Sweet Briar College, a private school for women in central Virginia.
Before she moved out of the president’s residence in 2014, Ms. Parker told faculty, staff and students the 114-year-old school was poised to thrive. Less than a year later, the campus community was stunned by a March 3 announcement that Sweet Briar College would close in August because of declining enrollment, a dwindling endowment and $28 million in deferred maintenance.
The news galvanized alumnae, who filed a lawsuit in Virginia to stop the school from spending donors’ money to wind down operations. Alumnae launched a website called savingsweetbriar.com, applied for nonprofit status and began raising money to save their school. More than 50 Sweet Briar faculty members also sued to stop the closing; students filed a third lawsuit for the same purpose. Four friend of the court briefs are on record. The Virginia Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Thursday.
Ms. Parker is an avid theatergoer and supporter of the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Canada, but the drama unfolding in Virginia evokes the rising tension more typical of a Tennessee Williams play.
Maggie Saylor Patrick, a former Sweet Briar board member, in a commentary in the Washington Post’s online higher education section, blamed the closing on “poor leadership” during Ms. Parker’s presidency from 2009 through 2014. Key people in power, Ms. Patrick wrote, “froze out the broader board membership and even fired members who disagreed with their policies.”
Sweet Briar professor Daniel Gottlieb asserted in the same Washington Post section that the college’s leaders “have made misleading through numbers an art form.”
In a third Washington Post online essay, Diane Dalton, a current board member, called the attack on Ms. Parker unfair, saying she displayed “notably strong leadership at a time when a perfect storm of external forces beyond her control was brewing.” Two additional board members wrote in a fourth Washington Post column that the school’s financial woes “had been building for decades.”
Bill Hunt, chair of the trustees of Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, said he is pleased with Ms. Parker, calling her “a strong leader and visionary thinker.
“When we were searching for Carnegie Museums’ new president, our search firm, Spencer Stuart, proactively recruited Jo Ellen based on her impressive career as an educator, a college administrator and a thoughtful leader. As she was thoroughly vetted by both the search firm and our search committee — which included detailed discussions with many individuals, including Sweet Briar’s board chair — it became apparent that we had found our next president.”
Ms. Parker declined a request for an interview but released this statement: “As a graduate of one women’s college [Bryn Mawr] and former president of another, I, like so many, am deeply saddened to see one more fine institution succumbing to fundamental challenges. Sweet Briar has offered public statements clearly explaining the circumstances and considerations that led to its decision to close. I have nothing to add to those explanations.”
A divided board and many resignations
Jo Ann Soderquist Kramer, a retired aerospace engineer from Vermont, served on Sweet Briar’s board of directors from 2006 until 2014, and said she resigned because Ms. Parker “was consultant happy.” A total of 11 consultants were hired during Ms. Parker’s tenure.
Ms. Kramer opposed spending $1 million to pay a consultant to survey prospective students unless half of that money went to recruiting new students through admissions and marketing.
Ms. Kramer and Richard Leslie, a New York real estate investor, were often outvoted. Mr. Leslie’s fiery seven-page resignation letter shows his frustration with Ms. Parker’s fondness for hiring consultants and details his decision to rewrite his will; he and his wife, Eleanor, had planned to leave $5 million to Sweet Briar. (The letter is published with this article online at post-gazette.com.) Three other board members resigned as well.
In multiple interviews, alumnae, faculty, students and staff describe two Jo Ellen Parkers. One is articulate and dynamic; the other, analytical and controlling. It was plain that Ms. Parker and her husband, who are urbanites, felt isolated in the more rural setting.
Ms. Parker also did not embrace student traditions, such as step singing, and rarely invited anyone to dine or socialize at Sweet Briar House, a yellow-brick mansion where she lived. After Jonathan Green, the school’s well-liked dean and chief academic officer, left in 2011 ostensibly to write a book, angry students blamed Ms. Parker and deposited manure on the front porch of her residence.
In an affidavit filed with a Virginia court, Ms. Parker agreed with the decision to close Sweet Briar.
An annotated list of former college employees, obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, shows that during Ms. Parker’s tenure, at least 90 people retired, left for another job or were fired. Some senior staff members, especially in admissions, were never replaced.
Among the 100-member faculty, 26 people retired, although two returned to teach classes. Five senior staff members departed, 16 people left admissions and six employees left the development office.
The key post of dean of enrollment management changed three times in three years. In 2012, Ken Huus left for Columbia College in South Carolina. His successor, Stephen Nape, left less than a year later. Louise Zingaro remained chief of staff and was named interim dean of enrollment.
“You can’t substitute the president’s assistant in that role and expect that they are doing the right job,” said Mimi Fahs, a tenured professor at City University of New York and Sweet Briar graduate.
The flurry of exits lowered morale.
“As time wore on and senior members of the administration left the college for one reason or another, the faculty became afraid of her,” said Marcia Thom-Kaley, a music teacher at the college.
Early in her tenure, Ms. Parker hosted a lunch for five past presidents of the Sweet Briar Alumnae Association at Sweet Briar House. Kathy Pegues, who lives in Orlean, Va., thought Ms. Parker was wise to connect with alumnae leaders and believed they would discuss how to move forward.
At the end of the meal, Ms. Parker announced that the alumnae director, who had reported directly to the president, would report to the head of development. “It was a fait accompli. It wasn’t a discussion we were having,” said Mrs. Pegues, who successfully recruited 11 women to Sweet Briar, all of whom graduated.
Ms. Parker hosted an alumnae trip to Central Europe and brought along her husband, but rarely mixed with guests.
“She wasn’t warm. She wasn’t welcoming. She never promoted the college. She didn’t cultivate donors. It was not a style that Sweet Briar’s accustomed to,” said Mrs. Pegues, who had experience hosting these trips but was not on the trip to Central Europe.
Ms. Parker’s appointment as head of the Carnegie was announced in April 2014. In February of this year, six full-time positions were eliminated and two longtime curators were let go at the art museum. The museum’s director, Lynn Zelevansky, blamed the downsizing on a $300,000 operating deficit and announced a staff reorganization.
Departures from the museum consortium began before Ms. Parker arrived. Her precedessor, David Hillenbrand, offered buyouts to curators at the museum of natural history in November 2013.
One of Ms. Parker’s top priorities, she told Carnegie Museums employees, was to find a new director for the natural history museum. So far, the post remains vacant.
Southern charm and good manners
Set on 3,300 acres — that’s 5 square miles — of countryside with old-growth forest, Sweet Briar College was established as a women’s school by the will of Indiana Fletcher Williams to honor the memory of her daughter, Daisy, who died at age 17. The Williams family is buried on Monument Hill on the property.
Mrs. Williams’ family ran Sweet Briar plantation; descendants of slaves who worked there still hold reunions on the campus and some are employed at the college. Ms. Parker raised money to restore a slave cabin on the property and made it her mission to improve diversity by attracting African-American and Latino students.
The campus, made up of Georgian buildings designed by renowned architect Ralph Adams Cram, is a tightly knit community where many professors own or rent homes on the grounds and often invite their students over for dinner.
The school’s alumnae are a unique sorority of can-do women. At its 50th reunion, the class of 1964 raised more than $1 million for its alma mater. Some alumnae, however, never wanted Sweet Briar development staff at their gatherings because they believed it was bad manners for women to discuss money.
Etiquette aside, finances were at the top of Ms. Parker’s agenda when she arrived at Sweet Briar in 2009, soon after the U.S. economy nosedived in September 2008, causing the Great Recession. During her first year, she convened a memorable, mandatory meeting for faculty, administration and staff in a campus chapel.
Standing at a podium with senior staff behind her and 250 faculty and staff in front of her, she noted that she is a Quaker and that when the governing members of a Quaker meeting have difficult news to discuss, they face the membership. She announced that the college would not match faculty’s pension contributions for a semester and would reduce staff. She said she would take a 2 percent cut in salary.
Claudia Chang, a longtime professor of anthropology and archaeology at Sweet Briar, recalls the gathering clearly.
“If you’re going to cut our salary and our benefits, don’t turn it into a quasi-Society of Friends action. I’m not her friend,” Ms. Chang said. “I thought it was a kind of a fake liberal way of covering up something I didn’t like.”
Under Ms. Parker’s leadership, Sweet Briar won accreditation for an engineering program and completed a modern addition to its library, achievements that garnered praise.
Predictably, cutbacks annoyed students, faculty and staff. But some former employees contend that Ms. Parker had to trim the school’s budget to keep the doors open.
Food, always ranked high in quality, was outsourced to Aramark, and students complained often about the poor quality of meals, for which they paid $30 a day.
Usually, as Christmas approached, the campus community held a vespers service followed by a party with chocolate fountains at Sweet Briar House.
“It was just a lovely time for the community to come together before winter exams. That stopped immediately with Jo Ellen’s presidency,” said Ms. Thom-Kaley, adding that the party was a scaled-down affair at the conference center.
“That was kind of a bucket of cold water on the community. Sweet Briar is really invested in those community traditions,” Ms. Thom-Kaley said.
On the last weekend of May, about 2,000 people arrived for a reunion at Sweet Briar, including Jonathan Green, the school’s former academic dean. He taught music for 15 years there before his eight-year tenure as a dean. Now, he is a provost at Illinois Wesleyan in Bloomington, Ill. The prospect of Sweet Briar’s demise upsets him deeply.
“Everybody in the country should be upset by this because a great college is closing and it doesn’t need to close,” Mr. Green said.
Marylynne Pitz: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1648.
Correction, posted June 12, 2015: An earlier version implied that Kathy Pegues went on a trip Jo Ellen Parker led in Europe for the school's alumnae. Mrs. Pegues was not on the trip. Also, the Florence Elston Inn & Conference Center, located on the Sweet Briar College campus, remains open.
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