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As fight to save Sweet Briar ramps up, senator asks: Do donors have rights?

Sweet Briar College’s iconic bell tower. (Photo by Meridith De Avila Khan/Sweet Briar College)

As alumnae fight to stop Sweet Briar College from closing, a state senator has a bunch of questions for Virginia’s attorney general, starting with: What are the rights of donors?

The small, private liberal arts college shocked faculty, students, and alumnae last week when the interim president announced the school would close forever this summer. The school, an all-women’s college that is more than 100 years old, has been actively fundraising and recruiting but, as president James Jones told the campus community last week, the financial difficulties were “insurmountable.”

[Sweet Briar College to close because of financial challenges.]

[She got into her first-choice college, then found out on Facebook it was closing.]

After 114 years, no more Sweet Briar.

Virginia State Senator Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax), whose own grandmother was a Sweet Briar alumna, heard from many distraught alumnae. He then turned questions to Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring in a public letter:

“As I understand, the College has a ninety four million dollar endowment and has been soliciting and collecting donations right up until a few weeks before the announced closing. I also understand that it owns a 3,200 acre campus with fixed assets, which is specially designated for the maintenance of a women’s college,” as stipulated by the original landowner who founded the college. So, he asked:

“1. What are the rights of the donors who made gifts to the institution in the past year, i.e. after the plans for closing had apparently been decided but not disclosed? Do they have a right to seek a refund if the school continues with its plan for closing?
2. What is the obligation of the school to its existing students, particularly those students who are within a year of achieving their degree?
3. What will happen to the property if it is no longer operating as a women’s college? Does it not revert to the donating party?
4. What is the role of the Board of Visitors in this process? Does the Board have a fiduciary duty to protect the interests of donors and students, as well as the mission of the College?”

[Sweet Briar alumnae rally to prevent closure.]

[Alumna: Sweet Briar is no finishing school, it must not close]

Michael Kelly, a spokesman for Herring, said that the outpouring of support from the Sweet Briar family has been remarkable. “Given that this is a private school, we are exploring what role, if any, our office may have as this process unfolds, and we will review Senator Petersen’s public letter when we receive it,” Kelly said.

On Wednesday, some faculty members announced they had joined the alumnae effort to save the college, questioning the secrecy with which the administration proceeded toward closing, and saying some faculty members had been threatened or intimidated with loss of severance pay if they joined the effort to block the closing.

“I want to go on record in saying there are so many faculty who really feel trapped, conflicted and fearful to speak for themselves,” said Claudia Chang, who has served on the college faculty since 1981. “On behalf of those faculty, I am ready to stand up to the administration, join our alumnae and fight this closure tooth and nail.”

John Ashbrook, another professor, said in a statement:

“The college’s decision to close Sweet Briar without giving alumnae, faculty and students the opportunity to help develop a viable plan to save the collage is unconscionable.

“We knew the school was in trouble, but not to this degree. If the administration and board had been more forthcoming and told the alumnae and faculty we were in this much trouble, I am sure we would have seen the same level of engagement as the Save Sweet Briar movement, but with more time to turn us around.

“Many of us suspected the previous two presidents and the board were not innovative thinkers and made poor financial decisions. And some of us, not me personally, but some feel that if we speak out there will be repercussions. However, if the faculty and alums give up, there will be repercussions for traditional liberal arts schools across the country.

“It isn’t just Sweet Briar’s fight. It’s a fight for liberal arts. Churchill said it best: ‘Never surrender!’ The students of Sweet Briar deserve better, as do the faculty, staff and alumnae.”

Christy Jackson, a spokeswoman for Sweet Briar, said in an e-mailed statement that school officials think the concerns might be the result of a letter the Faculty Executive Committee sent to professors, summarizing a meeting with the college’s chief financial officer and asking for patience as the administration worked through the details of potential severance packages.

“Sweet Briar College administrators have made every attempt to be sensitive to what closing the College means for faculty and staff, including our hope that we will be able to offer severance packages for College employees,” Jackson said. “It is our sincere hope that we will be able to offer severance pay and outplacement support to full-time faculty and staff whose employment is ended by the College as a result of the closure.”

Assistant professor Marcia Thom-Kaley said she is disappointed that the college community wasn’t made aware of the problem sooner, because “financial problems of this magnitude don’t happen overnight.”

“The faculty was told that as of October 2014, the auditors had signed off on their audit of the financial state of the college without raising any alarm bells,” Thom-Kaley said. “The administration should have involved faculty, staff, students and alumnae three years ago in the fight to save our beloved home. If someone is bleeding, you do not stand there and watch them die. You call an ambulance, you enlist everyone you see to help you stop the bleeding.”