Saving Sweet Briar

Inside the fight to save the 114-year-old women's college

Norm Shafer

Dressed in the school’s colors of pink and green, waving signs bearing welcoming messages—“Holla Holla,” and “Vixens forever”— Sweet Briar alumnae from around the country converged on the bucolic women’s college campus on Sunday, March 15 to welcome students back from spring break. Two weeks earlier, on March 3, Sweet Briar interim president James F. Jones had dropped the bombshell that the school would close following spring semester 2015, first to stunned faculty, who say they had no idea the 114-year-old institution’s financial situation was so precarious, and then, just an hour later, to an auditorium of sobbing students, some of whom had already heard the news through social media.

The festive spring break welcome was meant to lift student’s spirits, but it was also a symbol of alumnae’s defiance and part of a growing effort to save the school through any means possible—including legal action. The Saving Sweet Briar nonprofit, founded in the days after the announcement, has raised $3.1 million and has retained a high profile law firm to put up a fight. Their first demand: the resignation of the college’s interim president and board. What’s next for the Sweet Briar and its students?

Professor Marcia Thom-Kaley worked at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College when the board voted to make that school co-ed. When the faculty were called in to a meeting on March 3 at Sweet Briar, Thom-Kaley said, “I was expecting an announcement of the plan, what we were going to do to save the college.” Photo: Adam Barnes

Sweet Briar fight

Lawyers for alumnae fire opening salvo

Weeks after the board of Sweet Briar voted to shutter the school following the spring semester, alumnae’s legal action began with a March 23 memo sent by the firm representing Saving Sweet Briar, Troutman Sanders, to the attorneys for the college, demanding the resignations of Sweet Briar Interim President James F. Jones and the Board of Directors, alleging they have breached their duty to the college and may have violated Virginia charitable solicitation laws.

“This failure is most obviously demonstrated by the secrecy and the complete lack of transparency with which the President and the Board conducted themselves in reaching their decision,” reads the memo from Troutman Sanders lead attorney Ashley L. Taylor sent also to Attorney General Mark Herring and State Senators Robert Goodlatte and Chap Peterson.

The memo says that “the Board and the President decided to close the College despite having an endowment of nearly $90 million, with assets substantially exceeding liabilities and no accreditation issues.” It cites audited financial statements for the College from 2013 and 2014 that show that “net assets (total assets minus liabilities) actually grew by over $4 million from 2013 to 2014,” something the memo says was “directly attributable to endowment gains and alumnae contributions.”

Additionally, the memo claims that “the President’s and Board’s reliance on a supposedly imminent bond default may not be borne out by the facts.” Citing a “very successful capital campaign that raised $110 million, indicating a substantial ability to raise additional funds in the face of the alleged circumstances,” the memo calls it “alarming” that the president and board have made no attempts to conduct a new capital campaign or to seek other methods to meet the needs of the school. “In sum,” the memo reads, “it appears that the President and the Board have quit on the College.”

The memo also alleges that the board was actively soliciting donations in January and February of this year, and finalized a memorial scholarship on behalf of an alumna in the name of her deceased son. According to the memo, the board refused to return the funds after the closure was announced. In addition, the memo alleges that the board has been accepting donations during the annual giving campaign and sending representatives to solicit donations from donors while simultaneously planning to close the college.

According to the memo, the school is also under fire from the Amherst County Attorney Ellen Bowyer, who sent a letter referring to the aforementioned potential violations of the state’s charitable donation statutes. The memo requests a response from Sweet Briar officials by 4pm March 24, after this paper goes to press. Reached by e-mail, Richmond-based Sweet Briar attorney Calvin W. “Woody” Fowler, Jr. declined to comment by press time but said the school’s response would be forthcoming. In a prepared statement, Bowyer confirmed her office is examining the closure and has questions about its legality. “The use of any funds solicited for general operation of Sweet Briar College (“College”) since its founding to support activities to close the College may not be consistent with that statutory requirement,” she said, noting that her office will be communicating with the Office of the Attorney General and that “the College has issued a general order providing for preservation of College records based on the potential for litigation.“

The memo follows weeks of uproar from alumnae and from faculty, who on March 17 voted unanimously in favor of keeping the school open, and noted as disturbing the fact that board members filed a change to the articles of incorporation with the State Corporation Commission just two days before voting to close the school. The change indemnified board members against any legal action connected with their roles, and one professor familiar with the original articles said the amendment removed language in the orignal articles that required at least 24 members on the board. At the time of the vote, there were 23.

“You don’t have to have a middle school education to read between the lines and to be highly suspicious of why this amendment was filed,” said professor Marcia Thom-Kaley, who presented the article amendment to fellow faculty. “I’m not trying to insinuate anything,” she said, “just looking at black and white and going, hmmmm. This is interesting. What could this mean? In the aftermath of the last two weeks, it really bothered me and quite frankly has bothered a lot of faculty.”

An op-ed in the Roanoke Times pointed out that even though the school had spent down its endowment, the value of its assets had increased and its debt was down.

“Assets up, liabilities down. Isn’t that what might also be called ‘headed in the right direction’?” the op-ed asked, also poking at a statement by Jones that the school would need a $250 million endowment to continue operating, and claiming that Ferrum College, another small liberal arts school in a rural Virginia setting, has an endowment of only $50 million and has been increasing enrollment.

Saving Sweet Briar board member Sally Mott-Freeman said she has also been troubled by the behavior of the college’s board and Interim President Jones.

“He refused to consider any online efforts, refused any serious cost cutting,” she said of Jones, several days before the memo was filed, noting that even though the school was experiencing declining enrollment, there hasn’t been an admissions director for three years. “He has dissembled and collected money from well intended donors while intending to take this action,” she said.

She also had harsh words for the school’s previous president, Jo Ellen Parker, who left her post last summer after five years to take the helm of the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh and has declined to comment on the unfolding events at Sweet Briar. In the announcement of her departure posted on the Sweet Briar website last summer, Parker expressed optimism about the school’s future.

“I am proud of what we have accomplished together to offer students an exceptional educational experience, and I remain confident in the direction we are taking,” she said. “I leave knowing that Sweet Briar is poised to take another strong step into a distinguished future.”

“The issues that did develop were almost entirely on her watch,” said Freeman, who cited the recent library addition, done even as the school was spending down its endowment.

“Going out and doing an $8-10 million library addition hours before you make this announcement? It doesn’t add up,” she said.

The decision to close the school has also sparked outrage from state legislators.

“If only from the enormous interest generated by this story, there is sufficient basis to try and save the school,” wrote State Senator Chap Peterson (D-Fairfax) in a March 23 Facebook post, 11 days after he sent a letter to the General Assembly requesting an investigation. He points out in the post that “under Virginia law, the Attorney General has a role to play in ensuring that a donor’s intent is respected, even if the gift is made to a private non-profit. This is a unique opportunity to use that authority, i.e. by challenging the shut-down in court on the grounds that it contravenes the original gift of the land.”

In a March 18 e-mail to C-VILLE, Interim President Jones said the decision to close the school was difficult and he noted that his wife is an alumna, as are all but three of the 23 board members who voted unanimously to close. “Everyone is in a state of mourning,” he said. “Since the college has played such a significant role from the winter of 1965 when my wife and her father first drove through the gates and Jan fell in love with the school, the decision by the board is exceedingly painful for me on a professional and personal level simultaneously.”

Jones said he was aware of the school’s financial difficulties when he took the position last summer, but insisted that the decision was not a fait accompli—“It took… months and months to get through the entire review process and to let all the possible options work themselves out,” he wrote—and he said the amendment to the articles of incorporation was done on the advice of the school’s legal counsel who “thought the changes were necessary for proper board governance practices.”

As for the possibility that he and the board might change their minds—as the UVA Board of Visitors did in June 2012 when they reversed the firing of President Teresa Sullivan—he scoffed at any comparison.

“The two situations are in no way analogous,” he wrote. “The University [of Virginia] was not in a state of financial exigency. Sweet Briar is. I see no possibility that the Board’s unanimous action will be revisited.”

Jones declined additional comment following the memo, citing attorney’s advice.

For the alumnae who launched the Saving Sweet Briar nonprofit and hired the legal team to fight the closure, the memo is a high point in what has been a tumultuous three weeks.

“To have them be called to task is a gratifying moment,” said the nonprofit’s founder Tracy Stuart, Class of ’93. “It makes us feel elated and excited about the future and what’s going to happen at the school.”

At a ceremony on Friday, March 20, roses—a symbol of the school— were distributed to every student and faculty member. Photo: Adam Barnes

Ripple effect

County, town of Amherst fear the pain of college closure

Students, faculty and alumnae aren’t the only ones reeling from the Sweet Briar board’s decision to close the 114-year-old school after the spring semester.

“It affects people in the whole region,” said Dean Rodgers, county executive for Amherst County, a 491- square-mile rural county where the 3,250-acre women’s college is located. According to Rodgers, the Sweet Briar board didn’t give the locality any advance notice that it would be losing one of its largest employers.

“We received a letter the day they made the announcement and were asked to keep it quiet,” he said. “It’s a curiosity. I understand why they had to have a period of secrecy while they pursued options, but after that period of secrecy failed was the time for public fundraising—I mean beyond normal annual appeals for money, a last ditch effort. I haven’t seen that, at least not by the college.”

According to Rodgers, the tax revenue paid to the county by the college is small—the county, home to close to nearly 33,000 people, took in just $79,500 for money making activities from Sweet Briar last year. A bigger deal is the loss of the income and the jobs,” said Rodgers, noting that the school’s payroll plus contracts is about $15 million annually.

Rodgers took the county’s top job seven months ago, knowing that the county was losing its largest employer, the Central Virginia Training Center, which is slated to close by 2020.

“We know we’re going to lose 300 jobs at Sweet Briar, and the multiplier effect costs the county 488 jobs,” said Rodgers, citing numbers provided to him by the county’s Department of Economic Development in the wake of the announcement that the college would close. Combining the Sweet Briar closure with the loss of the Training Center, “that’s 20 percent of the actual jobs we have in the county,” he said.

The tiny Town of Amherst, population 2,200, also stands to feel the effects of the college closure, according to Mayor Paul Kilgore, thanks to the school’s heavy use of water and sewer. Sweet Briar makes up 10 percent of the water rate revenue, and 5 percent of the sewer rate revenue, Kilgore said. This year, for sewer, that was $42,000.  A contract requires the school to pay the town a minimum amount for water through 2018 and for sewer through 2022, Kilgore said, expressing hope that if the college closes, another entity would take over its historic campus and make up some of the loss, including revenue for some of the town’s 12-15 restaurants.

“It is such a great facility,” he said of the campus. “We can’t imagine that it’s going to be mothballed forever.”

Rodgers agrees. “Somebody’s got to buy it, do something with it, so it doesn’t become derelict,” he said, expressing hope that the current effort to save the school will succeed.

“We’re watching the alumnae just go after them, so who knows,” he said.

Starting a movement

Behind the scenes of Saving Sweet Briar

If the decision to close Sweet Briar had come 10 years ago, before the explosion of social media, the fight to stop it might never have coalesced.

“Within hours, people were rallying on a couple of Facebook pages,” said Sweet Briar alumna Tracy Stuart, who was on the site when news of the school’s impending closure broke on March 3.

Stuart said she and other alumnae around the country quickly went from shock and disbelief to anger. “This can’t happen,” she recalls thinking. “It’s time to seek justice for all the people who have loved this college so much.”

That night, Stuart was communicating with alums who shared her pain, and around 3am on March 4, she made a decision to retain lawyers to fight the decision. “I said, ‘I’m going to grab that torch and go with it,’” she said.

Tracy Stuart graduated from Sweet Briar in 1993 and is helping lead the fight to save the school. Photo courtesy of Tracy Stuart
Tracy Stuart graduated from Sweet Briar in 1993 and is helping lead the fight to save the school. Photo courtesy of Tracy Stuart

At that point, the Saving Sweet Briar nonprofit didn’t exist, and the fundraising hadn’t gotten going, so the cost of retaining counsel fell to her.

“If you’re going to get in the driver’s seat, you better be ready to drive,” said Stuart, who splits her time between Mystic, Connecticut and Martha’s Vineyard and is now a full-time volunteer for the effort.

Over the next several days, Stuart connected with 2004 Sweet Briar grad Brooke Linville, who’d set up the Saving Sweet Briar website and #SaveSweetBriar and had started collecting pledges. “I got together with her and the girl who started the Facebook page, we grabbed some other alums. It was a 19-hour straight day. Nonstop nuts.”

The result was the formation of the nonprofit that in less than three weeks has raised more than $3 million. The legal strategy to save the school is just getting going, Stuart promised.

“We owe it to the history of the school in general. We owe it to Indiana Fletcher Williams,” said Stuart. “If it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t have that school that’s educated so many women, and that beautiful tract of land. We have to preserve that.”

Daisy is buried on a hilltop on the sprawling campus. Photo: Norm Shafer

Daisy’s legacy

How a mother’s grief founded a college

Sweet Briar College founder Indiana Fletcher Williams came from a family that highly valued education at a time when that was not the norm for women. She died a millionaire in 1900, and her will directed that the fortune and 8,000 acres be used to establish the Amherst college in memory of her daughter, Daisy, who died at 16.

Indiana Fletcher was born in Lynchburg in 1828 and named for an uncle who lived in Indianapolis. Her father, Elijah Fletcher, came from a prominent Vermont family. He moved to Virginia as a school teacher, and then married and became a prosperous businessman and two-term mayor of Lynchburg, with business interests that included publishing the Lynchburg Virginian newspaper.

Elijah and his wife, Maria Antoinette Crawford, purchased Sweet Briar plantation in 1830 and raised their four children there. Indiana attended Georgetown Visitation Convent in Washington, D.C., and St. Mary’s Hall in Burlington, New Jersey. Her father sent Indiana, her sister and brother on a grand tour of Europe and the Holy Land to complete their education, according to the Sweet Briar College website, from which this information comes.

Indiana met Irish immigrant James Henry Williams around 1858 when he earned a divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York. The Civil War interceded, but Indiana and James renewed their acquaintance in 1865, and married within a couple of weeks in Lynchburg. Daughter Daisy was born two years later, and the family split its year between Amherst and New York.

The 16-year-old died from what is believed to be alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, an inherited disease that can mimic the symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or cirrhosis of the liver. Her father died of the same disease in 1889. He left his estate to Indiana, along with the wish that a school be established at Sweet Briar in memory of their daughter.

Famous Sweet Briar alums

Mary Lee Settle: Prolific author who co-founded the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, won the National Book Award in 1978 for Blood Tie, and died in Ivy in 2005.

Elizabeth Baden: A.K.A. Lisa Foster. Married Bill Clinton White House counsel Vince Foster.

Molly Haskell: Feminist film critic who started at the Village Voice and regularly contributed to New York magazine and Vogue. She was married to film critic Andrew Sarris, and taught film at Barnard and Columbia.

Janet Lee Bouvier Auchincloss: Socialite, mother of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill.

Diana Muldaur: Film and television actress, whose work includes original episodes of Star Trek.

Patsy Ticer: Mayor of Alexandria, state senator. —Lisa Provence

While the planned closing of Sweet Briar is a blow to all of its students, faculty have expressed particular concern for juniors, most of whom are too far along in their college careers to consider taking community college courses while they decide where to continue their education. n “Most young people take a year or more to choose a school,” said Bob Barlow, who served as Sweet Briar’s dean of student affairs from 1977 to 1995 and who returned to campus on March 15 to welcome students back from spring break. Underclassman can afford to take a semester of community college classes while the Sweet Briar legal battle unfolds, he said. “We’re encouraging freshman and sophomores not to jump too quickly.” But junior Kasey Bethancourt, pictured above (right) with fellow junior Elizabeth “JoJo” St. John, said she disagrees that she and her classmates are worse off than the younger students. “I’m more blessed than the sophomores. I got three years here,” she said, expressing confidence that if Sweet Briar can’t be saved, she’ll find a place at another university—possibly Hollins or a larger co-ed school. “I’m not really worried about where I’m going to go,” she said. “I know they will work with me and I will graduate on time.” Photo: Adam Barnes