This post has been updated.
The Sweet Briar College administration responded to a faculty lawsuit Monday by saying professors who had sued to stop the college from closing were looking for personal financial gain.
More than 50 faculty members joined the legal fight Friday to stop Sweet Briar from shutting down by alleging breach of contract, asking to be reinstated, arguing that the school’s finances did not require closure, seeking to stop the closure, and seeking more than $40 million in damages.
The school’s president announced suddenly last month that the 114-year-old women’s college in Virginia would close forever at the end of August, setting off a whirlwind of efforts to reverse that decision.
In an e-mailed statement Monday afternoon, a spokeswoman for Sweet Briar College said the administration was disappointed to learn about the faculty lawsuit.
“The lawsuit seeks damages in excess of $40 million, far exceeding the amount of unrestricted funds now available to the College. It suggests that certain faculty members are more interested in maximizing their individual personal financial interests than they are ensuring that Sweet Briar preserves sufficient resources to provide severance payments to all eligible faculty and staff.
“We believe there is no legal or factual basis for the lawsuit’s effort to prevent the College from closing, so the intent of the lawsuit appears to be an effort to secure a financial windfall. If it were somehow successful, the faculty members’ damages claim would guarantee the College’s inability to complete an orderly wind down of operations and eliminate any possibility of Sweet Briar’s mission continuing in a different form in the future.
“Neither court rulings nor political pressure can improve Sweet Briar’s financial condition. As sad, disappointing and disheartening as it is, the simple truth is that the College lacks the resources to remain open through the end of the 2015-2016 academic year.”
The faculty lawsuit argues that the college does not, in fact, have a financial emergency. During the past five years, the case asserts, net assets rose from $126 million to $135 million while the endowment grew from $85 million to $95 million. During the same time period, according to the case, debt dropped from $42 million to $25 million.
The Sweet Briar response went on to say that the board of directors decided to close the college after this academic year “while sufficient resources remained to assist those who would be most affected: its students, faculty, and staff. The Board remains committed to those goals and to preserving the legacy of the College.
“Sweet Briar will vigorously defend the various legal claims against it.”
Michael Shepherd, an attorney representing the faculty in the case, said in a statement, “We dispute the reason cited by Sweet Briar College—financial exigency—for terminating Plaintiffs’ employment in violation of their tenure rights and in breach of their employment contracts with the college.
“Notwithstanding that purported “financial exigency” is the sole reason cited for terminating Plaintiffs’ employment, Sweet Briar College has refused, despite our requests, to provide the information its board relied upon in deciding to close the college and terminate all of its faculty and staff.
“Given that lack of disclosure, and in light of the information otherwise available, Plaintiffs believe Sweet Briar College is financially viable and should remain open. We are hopeful that our request for a temporary injunction will be granted and our clients will be able to resume educating the students of Sweet Briar College in the next academic year.”
Attorneys for the college also responded to a separate lawsuit in court, arguing in part that the 15 people — alumnae, students and parents — who had asked the court to halt the school’s closing could not be considered as a joint case, and that students did not have a basis for claiming that the closing constituted a breach of contract or that it would cause them irreparable harm.
Alumnae and other supporters continued to fight the closing on other fronts, holding up signs in Washington, D.C. this weekend, and stopping Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring on his way into an event in McLean to urge him to support their efforts, not hinder them.
A spokeswoman for Herring said in an email that in that conversation he agreed that Sweet Briar was unique and special and commiserated about how unfortunate the situation is. He said he’d be happy to meet and hear more of their ideas they were gathering from experiences with similar situations around the country. As he has done for weeks, she said, he emphasized that the school and its community need to communicate open and honestly about this process and the decision the Board made, and they should explore any solutions that may be out there, and that he and his office will try to help where they can. Before the litigation started, his office had already met with school officials, the county attorney and lawyers for Saving Sweet Briar and they were trying to set up some joint meetings.