Sweet Briar might be saved after all

Lawsuit would replace president, board of trustees with a fiduciary

A lawsuit filed by the Amherst County Attorney on Monday may stop Sweet Briar College from shuttering by alleging that the administration violated the will the school was founded under and used donations illegally.

Ellen Bowyer, on behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia, is seeking an injunction to prevent the school from closing and to remove its Board of Trustees and president, replacing them with a fiduciary.

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. Last week, they threatened legal action, as did Bowyer.

The decision to close may have seemed sudden to students and alumnae, but it actually had been planned for months. According to the lawsuit, this means Sweet Briar officials may have violated Virginia state laws by soliciting charitable gifts even after they had—secretly—decided to close the college.

Sweet Briar leaders reject ultimatum from alumnae

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 Indiana Fletcher Williams' will. But according to the lawsuit, the college used donations to hire "multiple law firms and consultants to advise Defendants on closure of the College since as early as November, 2014."

The lawsuit also alleges that dissenting trustees were removed from the board, alternatives to shutting down the college were not explored, and that officials have destroyed relevant applicant and donor records.

Administrators' response

"Neither the President nor the Board has violated Virginia's charitable solicitation statutes," Sweet Briar's lawyer Calvin Fowler wrote in a statement to Business Insider, continuing, "Fundamentally, we disagree with the assertion that anything the Board has done, or any action that it has authorized, is in any way inconsistent with the charitable purposes and mission of Sweet Briar."

Also on Monday, administrators responded to a letter from Saving Sweet Briar, an alumnae-founded nonprofit. Officials say the school faces $25 million in debt and falling enrollment, and that while it has approximately $85 million in its endowment, about $65 million of that is restricted. 

A legal precedent

In 1979, alumnae of Wilson College sued the Board of Trustees when they announced they were closing the school. The judge ruled the board had not done enough to preserve the then 100-year-old, all-women's college—which is still open today (Jacobs, Business Insider, 3/30; Jacobs, Business Insider, 3/18; Svrluga, "Grade Point," Washington Post, 3/30; Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, 3/31).

The takeaway: A lawsuit against Sweet Briar College seeks to an injunction to stop the school from closing, and the removal of the president and Board of Trustees.

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