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?
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.”