A group of more than 50 Sweet Briar College faculty members filed a lawsuit Friday hoping to stop the college from firing them and closing. They argued that closure would be a breach of contract, that the financial crisis cited as the reason for closing did not, in fact, exist, and they are seeking more than $40 million in damages for the irreparable harm they claim they would suffer if it did.
The case adds to a list of tangled legal action against the small private women’s college in Virginia, all in hopes of keeping the school open.
The school has ardent supporters, who soon launched a blitz of efforts to stop the closing — raising more than $10 million of pledges, hosting events, buttonholing leaders of all sorts, and holding protests. (Scores are expected to protest the Virginia Attorney General after a fundraising tea this weekend in McLean for not taking a stand against the decision.)
And there are lawsuits. The Amherst County Attorney sought an injunction to stop the closing, as well, arguing that it would violate the terms of the will that founded the college and that charitable funds were being misused in violation of state law. Earlier this month, a circuit court judge did not allow that injunction. The judge did order the college to stop using charitable funds for the process of closing.
That hardly ended the battle. And now the faculty have joined in, on a different front.
The college is not in dire financial distress, the case argues. During the past five years, it asserts, net assets rose from $126 million to $135 million, the endowment grew from $85 million to $95 million, and debt dropped from $42 million to $25 million.
A spokesperson for Sweet Briar did not have a response to the case Friday. In documents filed in response to the Amherst County Attorney’s case, lawyers for the college laid out their position, citing longstanding financial distress that gained urgency in 2014, when $29 million in deferred maintenance costs, low enrollment, high attrition rates and steep tuition discounting drove expenses up and revenue dramatically down. The school was consistently drawing down the endowment, they argued, much of which is restricted, and debt exceeded the unrestricted portion of the endowment.
A professor’s detailed financial analysis and a report by a forensic accountant for the alumnae group, Saving Sweet Briar, also contest the administration’s position that the school had no choice but to close.
But attorneys for the college also filed documents from consultants and board members (including one helping to lead Saving Sweet Briar) warning of a grim financial future and questioning how the school could survive without considering alternatives.
Consultants also told them that they could not solve the problems through fundraising, lawyers contend.
The faculty case also detailed the impact the closure would have. Because the closure announcement came in the spring, long after most positions are filled for the following academic year, it will be particularly difficult for professors to find new jobs. And because many own houses on campus — but not the land the houses sit on — they have additional financial problems.
The suit seeks $42 million in compensatory damages for tenured faculty and an additional $2 million for non-tenured faculty.