“Never give in”: Polite defiance marks Sweet Briar graduation ceremony

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Tears flowed at Sweet Briar College's 2015 commencement ceremony, which may be the last if plans to close the school go through. Photo: Ophelia Lenz Tears flowed at Sweet Briar College’s 2015 commencement ceremony, which may be the last if plans to close the school go through. Photo: Ophelia Lenz

College presidents don’t usually skip commencement, but the leader’s absence is just one of the bumps endured by the Sweet Briar College Class of 2015, which graduated Saturday.

The largest earthquake in memory struck during their registration in August 2011. And now their college is going out of business—but not if the message delivered by the keynote speaker can prevail.

“Never give in,” implored Teresa Pike Tomlinson, quoting wartime words of Winston Churchill in her address to the class that could be the last.

Tomlinson, a 1987 graduate and the mayor of Columbus, Georgia, avoided making the kinds of direct criticisms that drove the college’s president away from the May 16 ceremony, according to a letter he sent to the Sweet Briar community days earlier. But by imploring the graduates to fight with “justifiable righteousness” and denouncing “false narratives” that excused the closing, she dove into the controversy that has swirled around this picturesque place for the last two and a half months.

“The truth is,” Tomlinson told the 117 graduates, “had you been at the table, had you been called to action, we would not be here today at the proposed end of an era.”

The era began in 1901 with a bequest of land from a wealthy woman honoring her deceased daughter. At around 3,250 acres, the tract contains 21 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places and sprawls over five square miles adjacent to a major highway, a combination that has provoked no shortage of nefarious theories.

While the college has attempted to quash talk of ulterior motives, it has declined to provide minutes of board meetings or even the board’s bylaws. “When they don’t give answers, people start making their own,” said Kelly O’Donnell, mother to a freshman from Sarasota, Florida.

Pinpointing the root of the college’s financial woes depends on the narrator. The board traces Sweet Briar’s troubles back to the 1970s when widespread coeducation opened doors far beyond rural Lynchburg. Many alumnae, however, allege that recent managers, including President James F. “Jimmy” Jones, hired last summer, made poor decisions.

Any death spiral accelerated after the March 3 announcement when the college told undergraduates to study elsewhere and rejected all freshman applications. A pair of temporary injunctions issued by a local judge to slow the wind-down hasn’t deterred Jones and the other 22 members of the board from continuing to fight for closure.

Their stance perplexes people like Anne Gray of Frederick, Maryland. Pausing from watching her daughter, Sarah, mingle with fellow graduates, she said reporters should follow the money.

“I have every faith that good will prevail,” said Gray. “We will defeat Jimmy Jones.”

Criticism of President Jones includes a no-confidence vote by the faculty and a student government survey finding that a majority of seniors wanted someone else to present their diplomas. Most recently, a music professor warned that Jones and his family would be berated at graduation.

The president of the senior class, Sadé Fountain, used part of her podium time to urge civility, and there were no obvious outbursts on the outdoor quad beyond respectful nylon bands of pink and green, the school colors, on professors’ sleeves.

“The Commencement ceremony is held by the president’s office,” said Fountain, “and we need to respect that.”

Sophomore Whitney Herndon, however, claimed that the school leaders have shown disrespect for their students.

“They teach us to have voices and be independent strong women,” said Herndon, “and then they try to smother that by not giving us a voice.”

As undergraduates scramble toward other colleges, Fountain acknowledged feeling “survivor’s guilt;” but students aren’t the only ones facing an uncertain future.

Between hugs from graduating seniors, assistant engineering professor Bethany Brinkman said that she plans to commute to a one-year position at James Madison University—an hour and a half away—with the hope that Sweet Briar will eventually reopen.

“We thought this would be forever,” said Brinkman.

Nearby, three employees folding graduation chairs said they haven’t yet found replacement jobs.

“We’re taking one day a time,” said Sharon Roberson, an 18-year veteran of Sweet Briar’s physical plant department. Roberson said that suddenly unleashing dozens of middle-age job-seekers into rural Amherst County to compete with graduating high school students will likely swell the ranks on public assistance.

For Calvin “Woody” Fowler, one of college’s lead attorneys, hand-wringing over the closing represents an “emotional” response to a simple math problem. He said the governing board, consisting mostly of alumnae, gain nothing from closing their alma mater.

“They would be delighted to keep the school open,” said Fowler, “but nobody has provided a plan.”

For Tomlinson, the graduation speaker, now is time for Sweet Briar women to stand up and fight.

“This is not about emotion,” Tomlinson said. “This is about people who are ready to step in to run Sweet Briar.”