Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has been criticized for weighing in on the controversy surrounding the closure of Sweet Briar College. (Timothy C. Wright/For the Washington Post)

Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring has found himself at odds with passionate defenders of Sweet Briar College, who have accused him of taking sides in the controversy swirling around the closure of the small women’s college in bucolic central Virginia.

Herring (D) has said that he would remain neutral in the private college’s abrupt decision in late February to permanently shutter the campus this year as a result of “insurmountable financial challenges.” But when he waded into the controversy by disagreeing with a legal challenge to the college’s board of directors, the most vocal opponents of closing Sweet Briar accused him of siding with the college — and waging a “war on women.”

Now, as negotiations and three separate legal battles move forward, the flap could have political consequences for Herring, who, 16 months into his term as attorney general, is widely seen as positioning himself for a gubernatorial run in 2017.

A former state senator with a long record as a moderate Democrat, Herring has tacked to the left since entering the statewide political stage, advocating in his campaign for attorney general in 2013 — and since taking office — on behalf of same-sex marriage, abortion rights and immigration reform. He has tried to emphasize that he is friendly on issues of particular importance to women.

Sweet Briar College (Meridith De Avila Khan/Sweet Briar College)

Herring’s detractors on the controversy surrounding Sweet Briar, including lawmakers, local leaders and a well-funded group of activists, seem to understand his political position — and are trying to pressure him by questioning his liberal, pro-women credentials. Some have invoked the phrase “Herring against women.”

“Mr. Attorney General, how can you sleep at night while trying to advertise yourself as a man committed to equal pay and women’s rights, while working in favor of the closure of a university who produces such strong standing citizens and women?” Leigh Anne Arnold, a 2010 Sweet Briar graduate from Fairfax County, asked on her Facebook page.

She joined a handful of women — some dressed in pearls and the school colors of green and pink — who last month protested outside a hotel where Herring was giving a speech.

Herring has expressed sympathy for students, alumnae, faculty, administrators and staff coping with the impending closure, and he has insisted that his legal brief in no way amounted to taking sides in the controversy.

“Sweet Briar College has provided young women with an outstanding liberal arts education for generations, and it’s unfortunate that the board of directors could not find a sustainable path forward,” Herring said. “Sweet Briar is a private institution, and unless the board has acted improperly or violated its duties, it would not be appropriate for the Commonwealth of Virginia to intervene.”

His spokesman, Michael Kelly, added, “It’s inappropriate to try to score political points out of an unfortunate situation that has so profoundly affected a community.”

Dozens of lawmakers, local leaders and even Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) have lamented Sweet Briar’s impending closure as not only an educational and historic loss for Virginia, but also an economic one, particularly for tiny Amherst County, where Sweet Briar is one of the largest employers.

In an effort to block the closure, some defenders have seized on the college’s standing as a charitable nonprofit, arguing that the will that established Sweet Briar 114 years ago does not allow for the board of directors to spend any of its assets closing down. Ellen Bowyer, the Amherst County attorney, went so far as to file suit, seeking a court injunction arguing that charitable funds have been misused in violation of state law.

It was in that case that Herring intervened. He filed a friend-of-the-court brief challenging Bowyer’s standing in the case and saying that the attorney general “is the public official designated to protect the public interest in charitable assets.” Despite the careful wording of the brief, he stirred a tempest of outrage from Sweet Briar advocates.

Lawmakers have been among the most outraged. Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax), whose grandmother was a Sweet Briar graduate, said: “I can’t explain that. I would have thought either A, you support the people who are trying to keep the school open, or B, you stay out of it altogether.”

Sen. Thomas A. Garrett Jr. (R-Louisa) said: “He stepped in it. They couldn’t close the doors fast enough to suit the attorney general.”

It didn’t help Herring’s cause when McAuliffe lamented the potential economic hit to Amherst and said he would look into the issue.

“I’m trying to figure out what I can do through economic development to help the community move forward,” he said, according to WTOP (103.5 FM).

Sally Mott Freeman is a 1976 graduate and board member of the nonprofit Saving Sweet Briar, which has raised more than $1.1 million in the fight to keep the school open.

“[Herring] ran as sort of an advocate for women. He and McAuliffe both ran on a platform of transparency and economic development. On all three counts, I’d say he’s got some explaining to do,” said Freeman, who lives in Maryland.

Thirty-nine members of the General Assembly — Republicans and Democrats — piled on with a letter to Herring urging him to investigate the school for seeking state aid for students not long before the closure was announced.

“The attorney general just wants to sit around a table and chat. He needs to move more aggressively,” Del. Ben L. Cline (R-Rockbridge) said. “He needs to force answers to the questions that have been put to Sweet Briar.”

Cline also questioned what would happen to the college’s $84 million endowment, 3,250-acre campus, historic buildings and art collection, including a rare early copy of the Declaration of Independence.

Herring responded that he would work with the state board that administers the scholarships. The disposition of the school’s assets would be hashed out in court, and he would review some requests from the college to modify the use of certain funds, he said.

“Consistent with our duty under Virginia law, we will ensure that Sweet Briar’s assets are used in a way that is in the public interest and as close as possible to the donation’s original purpose,” Herring said.

Bob Holsworth, a retired Virginia Commonwealth University political science professor, said although Herring might have anticipated blowback from his natural opponents to liberal causes, Sweet Briar activists’ ire was a surprise.

“He certainly had done nothing in the past to suggest he was waging a war on women,” Holsworth said. “He’s used that office very skillfully to support positions that Democratic activists take very seriously.”

On Sweet Briar, Herring hired a mediator in the hope of finding a solution.

“It’ll be interesting to see what’s the compromise between keeping a school open and closing it,” Holsworth said. “There’s not an easy middle ground to find there.”

A second mediation session is set for Monday — two days after what is expected to be the college’s last commencement.