As Sweet Briar women called out “Holla, holla, holla,” Bedford County Circuit Court Judge James Updike put his name to settlement agreements charting a path forward for the college and ending three legal challenges against the school.
“… Sweet Briar College will not merely endure, it will prevail,” he said, echoing William Faulkner’s words in 1950 on the future of mankind.
On March 3, leaders of Sweet Briar College announced board members had voted to close the 114-year-old women’s college in the face of what they called insurmountable financial challenges. Within hours of the announcement, alumnae began organizing and fundraising to stop the closure.
Eventually three legal challenges ─ one by Amherst County Attorney Ellen Bowyer; one by students, parents and alumnae; and one by faculty ─ pressed for legal injunctions requiring the college to remain open. Bowyer’s challenge even garnered attention from the justices of Virginia’s Supreme Court, who ruled Updike should take a second look at his ruling on Bowyer’s request for injunctions.
Days before what would have been a return to circuit court for Bowyer, the parties agreed to a settlement to keep the school open next school year.
As a footnote, Updike said Monday he’d been persuaded by a brief by three noted Virginia law professors he’d read Thursday that trust law does in fact apply to Sweet Briar. That had been a contentious issue in the legal proceedings, though it is not necessary to the settlement agreements.
The settlement announced Saturday came out of mediation hosted by Virginia’s Office of the Attorney General. Part of the agreement calls for the Attorney General’s Office to allow the college access to $16 million in previously restricted funds in the endowment for operating use. That’s contingent on that use being consistent with the donors’ intent, but the AG’s Office is confident that will be the case.
Going forward, the agreements prescribe a delicate dance among the parties including the Attorney General’s Office: failure of one party to follow through could undermine the entire agreement. Non-profit group Saving Sweet Briar has pledged $12 million to the school. The first $2.5 million is due by July 2. The school has pledged a leadership transition on that day, provided the money is delivered.
Another $6 million is due from Saving Sweet Briar within 30 days of July 2, and the remainder of the money within 60 days of that date — roughly the beginning of September.
Saving Sweet Briar Chairwoman Sarah Clement said her group can fulfill the $12 million based upon immediately convertible pledges — they do not plan to rely upon pledges made for future years.
"We need the keys to the college to get things done," she said. The transfer of the $2.5 million will start the process.
Michael Shepherd, attorney for the faculty plaintiffs, said faculty members will see their contracts terminate June 30, as scheduled, but then are eligible to be rehired.
“We anticipate, although it is not guaranteed, that all of the faculty and staff would be offered the opportunity to return,” he said.
According to Sheppard, faculty members and staff qualify for up to six months severance pay if they aren’t rehired by the college, or if they’ve been forced to take employment elsewhere and can’t come back.
As part of the settlement agreement, Sweet Briar College’s board has approved new members as proposed by the various parties involved in the legal challenges.
At least 13 board members must resign under the terms of the settlement, and college leaders didn’t know of anyone who has said they plan to stay. Chairman Paul Rice and Vice Chairwoman Elizabeth Wyatt are leaving.
President James Jones also is resigning under the terms of the settlement. Wyatt said he is set to be paid the remainder of his two-year contract: about one year’s salary.
Among the 18 new members approved are alumna Teresa Pike Tomlinson, mayor of Columbus, Georgia, and speaker at this spring’s commencement; and General Charles Krulak, the recently retired president of Birmingham-Southern College. The new members will comprise a majority of the board.
Phillip C. Stone Sr., who is to become Sweet Briar's new president when the transfer of leadership is completed, said after the hearing he is not signing on for a short-term role.
When Stone, a former president of Bridgewater College, heard of the March 3 closure announcement, he said he initially wouldn’t have bet on the possibility of reviving it.
But that view quickly changed when he saw the strength of alumnae efforts, he said.
“When you see what the alumni did in just 95 days, how could you turn your back on that kind of talent?” Stone asked, speaking to reporters outside the courtroom.
“Look at the amount of money they raised. They did a strategic plan. It hasn’t been out in the open yet but its wonderful strategic plan. I think it’s a fabulous plan. When you see what they have been able to do there is just no reason to throw in the towel. We are going to make this work.”
Attorney General Mark Herring came to Bedford for Monday morning’s presentation of the agreement to the judge.
“This deal and the future of Sweet Briar belongs to the school and its community,” he said. “They’re ones who agreed to it, and they’re the ones who will have to do the hard work of implementing this plan and charting a course for Sweet Briar’s future. I’m really glad we were able to help Sweet Briar find its path forward.”
Reached by phone on his way back to Richmond, Herring said he’d felt from the beginning the best course of action would be to get the college leaders and foes to sit down together to talk things through.
He said his office made the suggestion prior to the filing of the lawsuits, but at that point, the parties did not agree to make it happen. He praised both college leaders and their opponents for creativity and flexibility in crafting the agreement.
“I think the biggest challenges in the mediation were making sure there would be sufficient operation funds for the entire academic year … and also the change in leadership,” he said. “I really want to thank everyone, including the public for their patience.”
Asked if he regretted filing an amicus curiae brief in support of college lawyer’s assertion that Bowyer did not have standing to bring her challenge, Herring declined to say. At the time, he said he felt it was important legal information to bring before the judge.
“The school is going to stay open” he said. “I’m focused on moving forward, not looking back.”
Also reached by phone Monday, Wyatt, the outgoing vice chairwoman, expressed well wishes for the college moving forward.
“I am actually feeling quite good,” she said when asked about her emotions. “I think the resolution that was achieved among the four parties actually is a win. I truly believe it was the best possible resolution.”
She declined to say whether she personally planned to give money in the future.
“I’d rather not comment on that,” she said. “I’ve been very generous in my donations in the past.”
She said the news in early June about the possibility of lifting restrictions on funds in the endowment that first made her feel the parties could come to a settlement to keep the college open she could endorse.
According to Wyatt, the board did not specifically consider the idea of trying to get the attorney general to lift the restrictions on the restricted funds prior to their vote to close the school. She thinks their understanding at the time was it wouldn’t be possible because of the college’s debt obligations.
Wyatt said she continues to believe she made the right decision in voting to close the college. She said the board rightfully was concerned about low net tuition yield and the high rate of draw from the endowment, a rate she said was unsustainable.
Asked whether other alumnae also made the right choice in a mounting legal opposition to the closure, she said only time will tell.
Karin Kapsidelis of the Richmond Times-Dispatch contributed to this story.
While the celebration of Sweet Briar’s ongoing operation continues, some have come to the re…
After months of legal struggle, leaders of Sweet Briar College and the Saving Sweet Briar movement have reached an agreement to save the college and keep it open for the 2015-16 school year under new leadership.