Res­cue for Sweet Briar?

Vir­ginia AG un­veils plan to keep women’s col­lege open

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY SU­SAN SVRLUGA

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.

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