Sweet Briar President Jones will skip graduation

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

In the midst of legal turmoil over the future of Sweet Briar College, and two days after a professor penned an open letter urging him to skip the commencement ceremony on Saturday May 16, President James F. Jones has agreed to stay away.

“In the last twenty-four hours, it has come to my attention that there are faculty members and alumnae who have threatened, sometimes quite publicly, to repeatedly disrupt the ceremony tomorrow should I preside, despite the fact that my doing so would honor the College’s tradition to preside as have all other Sweet Briar presidents,” writes Jones in a letter sent to the Sweet Briar community explaining his decision. He will preside over the smaller Baccalaureate Ceremony taking place on Friday, May 15, he wrote, apologizing to “those students who had wanted me to present them with their diplomas.”

There are currently three lawsuits seeking to prevent closure of the school on behalf of students, faculty and alumnae. The scheduled commencement speaker, Teresa Pike Tomlinson, who graduated Sweet Briar in 1987 and is the first female mayor of Columbus, Georgia, has testified in court that in mid-February a Sweet Briar fundraising official flew to Georgia to have her sign a document affirming she’d leave the college $1 million in her will without telling her the school might close.

The author of the open letter to Jones, Professor Marcia Thom-Kaley, expressed relief.  “We can now focus, as a community, on celebrating our wonderful graduates and each other,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I remain hopeful that this could be a sign he will, likewise, reconsider other decisions.”

Story updated 11:55am with response from Marcia Thom-Kaley

Full text of James Jones’ letter:

Dear Members of the Sweet Briar Community:

 After much deliberation and consultation with members of the campus community, I write with great sadness to tell you that I have reluctantly decided not to participate in Saturday’s commencement ceremony. In the last twenty-four hours, it has come to my attention that there are faculty members and alumnae who have threatened, sometimes quite publicly, to repeatedly disrupt the ceremony tomorrow should I preside, despite the fact that my doing so would honor the College’s tradition to preside as have all other Sweet Briar presidents.

 I was deeply moved by the senior class officers’ call on May 1 for a peaceful, traditional, and joyful ceremony, and while this year is like no other in Sweet Briar’s history, I had sincerely hoped their wish would be honored.  I am also confident that the vast majority of our alumnae and our faculty share my belief that commencement is solely about celebrating our graduating students and their families. Yet, I have made this decision because I do not want anything to distract from what should be a celebration of our students’ academic success. Dean Amy Jessen-Marshall has graciously agreed to preside over commencement in my absence.

 To those students who had wanted me to present them their diplomas, please know how deeply sorry and disappointed I am. I will, however, still participate in baccalaureate this afternoon, and I look forward to visiting with you and your families at the reception immediately following the service on the lawns of Sweet Briar House.

To the Class of 2015, I send you my heartfelt congratulations on this milestone in your life. Wherever life’s path leads you, I wish you a happy and successful future. I know that you will make us all proud and that you will always be honorable Sweet Briar women in thought, word, and deed in your adult lives. Please never hesitate to contact me if I can be of any assistance to you in the years to come.

Yours very truly,

James F. Jones Jr. President, Sweet Briar College

President Emeritus, Trinity College

President Emeritus, Kalamazoo College

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