Rescue for Sweet Briar?
Virginia AG unveils plan to keep women’s college open
Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring’s office announced Saturday night that an agreement has been reached to keep Sweet Briar College open next year.
The agreement, which requires court approval, involves a $12 million commitment from an alumnae group and permission from the attorney general to release $16 million from the school’s endowment.
The president of the private women’s college in rural Virginia shocked many in March when he abruptly announced that the college, which is more than 100 years old, would close in the summer. Since then, supporters have been working feverishly to save the school, protesting, raising money and filing lawsuits challenging the closure.
On Saturday, Herring’s office announced that — if Bedford County Circuit Court Judge James W. Updike Jr. approves the agreement — Saving Sweet Briar, the alumnae group, would give $12 million for the operation of the college for the 2015-2016 year, with the first $2.5 million installment to be delivered in early July.
The agreement comes barely a month before the historic school was slated to close — and in advance of court hearings on multiple lawsuits. It does not resolve the ongoing issues that the school’s current leadership cited in making the decision to close, such as concerns about enrollment and revenue. It does not explain where next year’s class
would come from, since accepted students were told to apply elsewhere and current students were told to transfer. But it provides a stopgap.
Herring’s office would release restrictions on $16 million from the school’s endowment for operations.
Both the alumnae group and other challengers to the closure say the funding would be enough to keep the school operating for the 2015-2016 academic year.
Leadership would change: If the agreement is approved, at least 13 board members would resign, and 18 new members would be appointed — a majority that would control the board.
The president, James F. Jones Jr., would resign, and Phillip Stone, a former president of Bridgewater College who was suggested by Amherst County At- torney Ellen Bowyer to step in as a fiduciary, would lead the school. He has agreed to serve as the new president.
Faculty, who were expected to be unemployed, may receive negotiated severance payments or may continue working at Sweet Briar.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the college said its board was pleased that the financial situation “has dramatically changed to avoid closing.”
However, there was skepticism about the agreement.
“I don’t know that it’s going to work,” said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, who has been following the matter closely.
“It’s going to take a whole lot of very hard to work to make it happen. In two months, new classes will begin. So they need to do a whole bunch of things and do them very quickly. Retain classes. Get an incoming class. That may be the most difficult thing, because it’s so late. . . . Just scramble, I think, in the short term. Hold the faculty who haven’t made other plans. It’s a shortterm fix” and people will have to wait and see whether that can be sustained over the long term, he said.
“I think this is the best that could come out of where we were. It gives them a chance.”
Alumnae were celebrating Saturday.
“Today’s settlement is an answer to the prayers of many and a powerful validation of the value of fighting for what you believe in,” said Sarah Clement, head of Saving Sweet Briar.
She called on the thousands of alumnae “who made this possible” to convert pledges into donations quickly.