This post has been updated.
A lawsuit seeking to stop Sweet Briar College from closing was filed Monday by the Amherst County Attorney, charging that a closure would violate the terms of the will under which the school was founded and that charitable funds have been misused in violation of state law.
The small Virginia college’s president, James Jones, shocked students, faculty and alumnae earlier this month when he announced that the 114-year-old school would close forever this summer. Alumnae and faculty have been staunchly opposed to that decision.
“Time is of the essence,” the suit, filed on behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia by the county attorney, Ellen Bowyer claims, as college officials appear to be rapidly moving to sell assets, destroy documents and “obliterate contractual relationships governing tenancies and endowments.”
The suit seeks to stop the closure and replace the school’s president and board with a fiduciary to take over the school’s assets.
The lawsuit claims that the action, while announced suddenly, appeared to have been in the works for months, with a legal firm offering advice on closure and efforts to form partnerships with other colleges to ease students’ ability to transfer, among other things.
Christy Jackson, a spokeswoman for the college, sent the following statement Tuesday evening:
“Sweet Briar College has the utmost respect for the Office of the County Attorney of Amherst; however, the claims asserted in the County Attorney’s Complaint are contrary to well-established Virginia law as expressed by both the General Assembly and the Supreme Court of Virginia.
“Sweet Briar’s counsel engaged in open dialogue with the County Attorney prior to the lawsuit being filed, and although the matter is now in litigation, Sweet Briar will remain receptive to further communications with the County Attorney on all matters as the litigation progresses.”
The lawsuit claims that college officials continued fundraising efforts even as they pursued secret efforts to close the school, such as a letter from Jones thanking an alumna for her estate gift of $1 million in mid-February for her “commitment to future generations of young women and all that Sweet Briar can mean in their lives.”
It claims that charitable funds have been used for other purposes, such as paying in part salaries and hiring legal firms and consultants to assist with closure.
“I have spoken with all the affected parties, including the Attorney General’s Office, the lawyers for
Saving Sweet Briar, and the College’s lawyers, and I have reached the conclusion that it is necessary and important to examine the closure process within the context of circuit court proceedings”, Bowyer said in a statement. “For that reason, the Complaint asks the Court to, among other things, enter an injunction restraining the Defendants from taking any further steps to close the College, and requiring the Defendants to continue operating the College in the normal course of business.”
Kristen Frey, a junior engineering major, said in a statement, “Every day that goes by without a resolution is just gut wrenching for me and my fellow students. Today’s lawsuit against the College gives us real hope that Sweet Briar can be saved.”
On Monday afternoon, school officials responded at length to a letter sent last week by a legal team representing the alumnae-founded nonprofit Saving Sweet Briar, Inc., which called on the school’s president and board to step down.
School officials wrote in depth about the college’s financial challenges, including debt, pressing maintenance expenses, and declining enrollment, and strongly defended the abilities and integrity of the school’s leaders. The school has about $85 million in its endowment, of which $65 million or so is restricted, they wrote, and the $25 million in debt exceeds the unrestricted portion of the endowment.
Their assessment differs markedly from the financial picture described in the Amherst County lawsuit, which describes, over the last five years, decreasing debt load, increasing endowment and increasing net assets.
The board and president made a very difficult decision to close Sweet Briar, the college’s letter concludes. “It was the right decision, and they will see it through.”