Suing to Save Sweet Briar

County attorney seeks injunction to block closure and to replace president and board, charging that they have violated several laws.

March 31, 2015
Sweet Briar College

Since the announcement that the board of Sweet Briar College would shut it down this year, students, faculty and alumnae have proposed various plans to save the institution. But the ticking clock toward the end of the semester -- the last, according to the board -- has presented a huge obstacle. Students have felt pressure to transfer. Faculty members and other employees have been scrambling to find new jobs. Some of the college's fans have feared that a perfect plan might emerge just as the place is being shut down.

On Monday, however, a county attorney in Virginia gave defenders of the college new hope that they could stop the ticking clock and save the institution. The county attorney filed suit in Virginia court charging that the president and board of the college have violated several state laws and failed in their duties to keep the college running. And the suit seeks an injunction to stop activity to close the college and to replace the president and the board.

Filing an injunction and a suit is not the same thing as winning them, of course. And the college and its current leaders have given every indication that they will fight this suit. But the legal action by a government official presents the possibility of stopping the current plan to shut down the college.

The lawsuit represents as well an effort to challenge the narrative of the college that its president and board have put forth. They have argued that they had no other options and came to the closure decision only after considering every other possibility. But the suit argues that important alternatives weren't considered, that dissenting trustees were forced off the board and that the college was inappropriately seeking gifts in the months prior to the closure announcement, without telling donors that their money would not end up supporting Sweet Briar.

The plan to close Sweet Briar is "not only precipitous and unwarranted, it is also unlawful," the suit says.

When the Sweet Briar board announced its plans, officials said the college was unable to attract enough students as a women's liberal arts college in rural Virginia. While applications were up, the yield (the percentage of admitted applicants who enroll) was falling, while the discount rate (the percentage off sticker price that students actually pay) was rising. It all added up, the board said, to an unsustainable future. The responsible thing, board members said, was to shut down now, in an orderly way, helping students adjust to new institutions.

The lawsuit makes a series of challenges to that perspective:

  • The suit states that the bequest that created Sweet Briar specified that it exist "forever" as a college for women, and that the land for the college never be sold.
  • The suit says that prior court rulings have established that the college must abide by the bequest's terms to maintain the institution. This even included a court ruling that permitted some terms (such as those restricting Sweet Briar to white women) to change.
  • The suit charges that the college spent months, prior to the announcement about shutting down, negotiating "teach out" agreements that would allow Sweet Briar students to transfer to other colleges. This suggests, the suit says, that the trustees did not intend to find solutions to the college's problems.
  • The board "failed to consider," the suit says, options that could have kept the college open. Among those cited by the suit: a new fund-raising campaign, admitting more international students, stepped-up recruiting at private girls' schools with equine programs (a strength of the college), restructuring the curriculum, or stepped-up recruiting of wealthy students.
  • While the board presented its decision as unanimous, the suit says that four board members who were "vocal" in criticizing the direction of the board were either forced off the board or told that they would not be reappointed. Two of these board members provided specific plans to the board to attract more students and improve finances. (The suit includes a resignation letter from one former trustee as evidence. That letter talks about how board decisions were made by a small group of trustees, with others allegedly in the dark.)

The suit then goes on to say that the college can survive. The suit cites the experience of Wilson College, a private institution in Pennsylvania that is to date the only institution forced by court order not to close. But Sweet Briar leaders are selling off assets, the suit charges, and so need to be stopped. For example, the college plans to "give away" its study-abroad program, which is held by many educators in high regard.

The college is also taking steps, the suit charges, to assure closure. For example, the suit charges that the college has destroyed records related both to prospective applicants and to donors.

Sensitive Issues

A college spokeswoman said that officials were reading the suit and not yet ready to respond.

But the college recently released a legal analysis of a paper released by Saving Sweet Briar, an alumnae group, that makes some similar criticisms to those in the lawsuit. In the college's response to that document, it states that it was "not realistic" for the board to "go public" on its deliberations, given the sensitive nature of the discussions. The document also defends the right of the board to act, even in unpopular ways. "Decisions such as these cannot be made by referendum," the document says.

While the statement admits that Sweet Briar has money in its endowment (more than $80 million), the college argues that closing while it has some money is better for all involved. "By closing now, the college hopes to have resources to provide faculty and staff with severance and other support," it says. In addition, it says the college wanted to announce plans so that students unable to graduate could make appropriate transfer plans.

The document strongly denies any violation of the fiduciary duties of trustees or administrators. The college is continuing operations this semester, the document says. And the college argues that closure is what the institution and its constituents need. "The board properly concluded that taking action to cease academic operations in a way that best protects students, faculty and staff was the course most consistent with the charitable purposes and mission of the college."

Vote of No Confidence

The faculty of Sweet Briar on Monday voted no confidence in the board or President James Jones, The Lynchburg News & Advance reported. Professors said that meaningful discussions with the faculty and others had been cut off, and called on Jones and board members to resign.

The college released a statement after the vote saying that the board had agreed to meet with faculty leaders. The statement rejected the idea of resignations of college leaders.

"The board explored a number of potential solutions, including mergers and collaborations with other institutions, curricular changes and coeducation, and after a review of the college’s insurmountable financial, enrollment and operational challenges, determined that the only responsible option available was to close," the statement said. "A change in Sweet Briar’s leadership will not change these challenges, but rather further destabilize an already fragile situation."


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