Tenacious board: Sweet Briar fight heads to state’s top court

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

As the fight over Sweet Briar College heads toward the Virginia Supreme Court, one key question swirls around the board, which recently voted to close the 114-year-old institution. The trustees find themselves opposed at practically every level by students, alumnae, faculty, and even elected officials. Three lawsuits have been filed, the judge hearing them says he’ll do nothing to assist the closing, and one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers claims that the school president could face personal liability for his actions. Why would any board, faced with such outrage and obstacles, persist in trying to close a beloved college?

Before seeking answers, let’s consider what happened the last time the leadership of a Virginia institution of higher learning became a national controversy. In 2012, a pair of University of Virginia board members confronted their president less than two years into her term and convinced her that she must resign or be fired. After widespread indignation—not to mention a governor’s threat to fire the entire board—one of the two plotters resigned, and the rest of the board quickly convened to unanimously reinstate President Teresa Sullivan. The entire drama played out in 18 days.

At Sweet Briar, the closure announcement was March 3, so the turmoil is about to enter its fourth month.

“Nobody understands why the hell they are doing this,” says Jay Orsi. “Ego and pride is about all I can hang it on at this point.”

Orsi is an Arkansas business owner whose wife graduated from Sweet Briar in 1991. With a masters degree in business and a concentration in finance, Orsi stoked the flames of alumnae anger last month on his blog, unsolicited.guru, by showing how Sweet Briar President James F. Jones Jr. appears to have overstated the level of deferred maintenance on the campus by a factor of eight.

Orsi is also the person who provides the most evidence-based explanation for the board’s decision—and its timing. By filing a Freedom of Information Act request with the issuing agency, the Amherst Industrial Development Authority, Orsi discovered that in 2014 Sweet Briar earned a year of breathing room on its most recent set of bonds.

Orsi says the bonds carry certain rules, called covenants, regarding cash reserves, that the College was on the verge of breaking. The most thorough solution, he says, would be raising $9 million to pay off those bonds, an effort he considers reasonable given that it’s been nine years since the College’s last capital campaign, which raised $110 million, and because recent donors have rallied to raise as much as $14 million to save the college since the closure was announced.

“It’s an all hands-on-deck thing,” says Orsi. “If they’d said that, money would have come out.”

Instead, Orsi says, the board botched its business plan by failing to hire an admissions director or a development director. Donations were flat, and enrollment fell.

“They did nothing with the extra time they bought,” says Orsi.

The board, however, claims that long-term trends include declining enrollment and revenue.

“Nothing about Sweet Briar’s financial situation has changed to alter the board’s decision that the College cannot afford to continue,” says spokesperson Christy Jackson. “As such, the board is trying to ensure an orderly wind-down of operations with the hope the College will be able to provide as much support as possible to students, faculty and staff, and to meet its obligation to creditors.”

It’s hard to say what creditors think since there’s no public list, but a majority of seniors participating in a pre-graduation survey asked for someone other than President Jones to hand them their diplomas. Likewise, the faculty who appeared at a recent meeting voted unanimously for the resignation of the entire board.

“The board members have principle and courage,” argues Woody Fowler, attorney for them in two lawsuits. “When the pressure comes in, you just don’t walk away, particularly when they don’t believe there’s another alternative out there.”

Early on, D.C.-based business-closing expert Megan McArdle lauded the board’s decisiveness in a Bloomberg essay. Now, she wonders if they’ve been hard-headed.

“They get invested in being right,” says McArdle. “It’s like gamblers who double down. You want to defend that with your life because you don’t want to admit you made a mistake.”

McArdle now joins those perplexed by the board’s unwillingness to step aside and let a new group try to create Sweet Briar 2.0.

“It’s really hard to back off of something that’s extreme,” says McArdle. “That’s a good thing if the school must be closed, but if the school can be saved it’s a terrible thing.”

McArdle contends that the board unwisely built an expensive set of on-campus townhouses and failed to enlist the help of the faculty in reducing the financial problems. She asserts that by sending students packing, the March 3 announcement has already had the intended effect.

“I don’t think the president and the board have covered themselves in glory,” says McArdle, “but that doesn’t mean I think the school can be saved.”

This Thursday, June 4, the Virginia Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in an appeal filed by Amherst County Attorney Ellen Bowyer, who is trying to save the school.

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