Sweet Briar fight: First legal salvo fired by alumnae legal team

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The fight to save Sweet Briar College in Amherst heads to the Virginia Supreme Court on Thursday, June 4. Photo by Norm Shafer The fight to save Sweet Briar College in Amherst heads to the Virginia Supreme Court on Thursday, June 4. Photo by Norm Shafer

Weeks after the board of Sweet Briar voted to shutter the school following the spring semester, alumnae and faculty are fighting back, raising more than $3 million through the nonprofit Saving Sweet Briar and hiring the international law firm of Troutman Sanders to pursue legal action to block the closure. That action began with a March 23 memo sent to the college’s legal team, demanding the resignations of Sweet Briar Interim President Jim Jones and the Board and alleging they have breached their duty to the college and 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 attorney Ashley L. Taylor and sent to Attorney General Mark Herring and State Senators Robert Goodlatte and Chap Peterson.

Among the memo’s accusations:

  • 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. Indeed, the 2013 and 2014 audited financial statements for the College show that net assets (total assets minus liabilities) actually grew by over $4 million from 2013 to 2014. This change was directly attributable to endowment gains and alumnae contributions.”
  • That “the President’s and Board’s reliance on a supposedly imminent bond default may not be borne out by the facts. Importantly, the College conducted a very successful capital campaign that raised $110 million, indicating a substantial ability to raise additional funds in the face of the alleged circumstances. It [is] alarming that the President and Board have made no attempt whatsoever to conduct a new capital campaign or consider other methods of meeting the College’s needs. In sum, it appears that the President and the Board have quit on the College.”

The memo alleges that the board was actively soliciting donations in January and February of this year, including finalizing 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 County Attorney for Amherst County, who is looking into the aforementioned potential violations of the state’s charitable donation statutes. The memo requests a response from the president and board by 4pm on Tuesday, March 24.

Our coverage of the fallout from the announcement of Sweet Briar’s closure will continue with a feature that will publish Wednesday in print and at c-ville.com.

Correction: It is the county attorney for Amherst, not the commonwealth’s attorney, who is looking into potential violations.