Faculty jumps into Sweet Briar legal fray as school remains defiant

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Photo: Norm Shafer Photo: Norm Shafer

A group of 55 Sweet Briar faculty members has filed yet another lawsuit attempting to block the planned closure of the 114-year-old college, claiming breach of contract. But the school’s leaders have fired back with a legal memorandum opposing the suit—the third filed against the school in a month—and have accused the faculty of trying to milk the situation for their own gain.

The plaintiffs filed the motion for an injunction in Amherst County Court on Friday, April 24, claiming that the school’s leaders are terminating faculty members’ employment illegally based on a financial crisis that doesn’t exist. They’re seeking $42 million in damages plus another $2 million for non-tenured faculty, saying they’ll suffer “irreparable harm” if they’re terminated at the end of the current school year. Academic employment is about more than their salaries, they claim in the suit; they need to stay in academia in order to remain “marketable as faculty members in higher education,” they said, and the timing of the closure means they won’t be able to find employment for the coming school year.

The college fired back with its own filings claiming the faculty lack standing and are trying to reargue a similar effort to block the closure. The judge in that case, brought by Amherst County Attorney Ellen Bowyer and supported by the alumnae group Saving Sweet Briar, granted only a temporary injunction against shuttering the school.

“We believe there is no legal or factual basis for the lawsuit’s effort to prevent the College from closing, so the intent of the lawsuit appears to be an effort to secure a financial windfall,” the college said in a press release issued Monday. “If it were somehow successful, the faculty members’ damages claim would guarantee the College’s inability to complete an orderly wind down of operations and eliminate any possibility of Sweet Briar’s mission continuing in a different form in the future.”

The release said the school will vigorously defend itself in the face of legal claims against it, which include a separate suit brought by students and parents filed even as Bowyer seeks an appeal in her case.

“Neither court rulings nor political pressure can improve Sweet Briar’s financial condition,” said the release. “As sad, disappointing and disheartening as it is, the simple truth is that the College lacks the resources to remain open through the end of the 2015-2016 academic year.”