Virginia Supreme Court decision renews hope for Sweet Briar community

'We have not won the war, but we have won a major victory'

The Supreme Court of Virginia paused the closure of Sweet Briar College on Tuesday when it returned a case challenging the decision to shutter the school back to a lower circuit court, the Associated Press reports.

"We have not won the war, but we have won a major victory," says William Hurd, a lawyer for Sweet Briar alumni, who argued the case before the state's Supreme Court.

Background

In March, Amherst County Attorney Ellen Bowyer filed a lawsuit to stop Sweet Briar from shuttering by alleging that the administration violated the will the school was founded under and used donations illegally.

Sweet Briar 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.

This spring, a lower court ruled that Sweet Briar Institute—operator of the college—is a corporation and therefore could individually decide to close the institution.

The Supreme Court's decision

Virginia's highest court, however, said that ruling was wrong and sent the case back down to the lower court. By June 24, the circuit court must hear arguments regarding the injunction to halt Sweet Briar's closure until the full case plays out.

The Supreme Court justices did not take a position on the college's closure.

"In short, the controversy of the college's scheduled closing is far from over, and all agree that the ultimate merits of the controversy are not, at least for today, squarely before this court," they said.

Renewed hope

The decision "is a strong signal to students and faculty that they should keep at least one foot on the Sweet Briar campus," says Hurd.

The ruling is a win for alumnae, students, staff, faculty, and "women's colleges and for the sanctity of charitable bequests made in this country," said a statement from Nonprofit Saving Sweet Briar Inc., a group that has raised $16 million in pledges.

Now, the group plans to seek the appointment of a "special fiduciary" to gauge the college's financial situation. And "time remains of the essence," says Bowyer, who says she will seek a quick resolution in the lower court.

Meanwhile, Sweet Briar College downplayed the ruling's importance and said in a statement the decision "is unlikely to have significant impact on the pending litigation" (Szkotak, AP/WTOP, 6/9).

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