Sweet Briar leaders reject ultimatum from alumnae

Say litigation could hold up payments to creditors

Sweet Briar College alumnae threatened legal action against the school's president and board unless they stepped down Tuesday afternoon.

They did not.

The ultimatum was issued by Ashley Taylor Jr. of Troutman Sanders, a lawyer hired recently by the group of alumnae working to save the college.

Sweet Briar College announced in early March that it planned to close at the end of the current academic year. The announcement stirred up protests among faculty and alumnae, who quickly launched a crowdfunding campaign and moved to block the closure.

In the letter, Taylor says that Sweet Briar officials violated Virginia state laws by soliciting charitable gifts even after they had—secretly—decided to close the college. The relevant code forbids using donations "for any purpose other than the solicited purpose" or the "general purposes" of the organization accepting the funds. The general purpose of Sweet Briar College is to educate young women, according to its founder's will.

The letter asserts that Sweet Briar leaders violated this clause by using donated money to fund the activities necessary for closing the college.

Taylor also references a separate letter to the school from the local county attorney, Ellen Bowyer, which also says the school may have violated the same state law. Bowyer's letter lists several potential violations, including sending fundraisers to solicit gifts to continue the college's work while simultaneously planning to close the school.

Taylor also suggests that Sweet Briar may still be in a financial position to remain open, specifically referencing the school’s endowment of almost $90 million and growth in net assets.

The letter threatened "actions to prevent further breaches" of state law unless Sweet Briar’s president and board stopped the closure and resigned by 4:00 p.m. on Tuesday.

The administration refused to step down and issued their own statement calling the allegations "wrong and unfair."

In the statement, officials deny that the president and board have violated any laws and assert that new leaders would not be able to overcome the school's "insurmountable" challenges. The statement acknowledges that the efforts of alumnae are well-intentioned, but says the ongoing controversy could delay the settling of accounts with staff, students, and creditors.

Bowyer told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that she is also considering legal action against the school, but she is still collecting information and determining how best to proceed (Jacobs, Business Insider, 3/24; Pounds, News & Advance, 3/23; Balingit, “Grade Point,” Washington Post, 3/24; Kapsidelis, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 3/24).

The takeaway: The president and board of Sweet Briar College could be facing legal action after refusing to step down in response to a demand from the lawyer representing the school's alumnae.

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