Efforts to keep Sweet Briar College open are headed to the Virginia Supreme Court.
Ellen Bowyer, the commonwealth’s attorney for Amherst County, appealed a circuit court judge’s ruling Wednesday, asking the Virginia Supreme Court to stop Sweet Briar College from closing.
The private college is slated to shut down forever at the end of this summer, after a stunning announcement last month by its leaders that they couldn’t resolve the school’s financial challenges.
Since then, efforts have been underway on multiple fronts to keep the 114-year-old women’s college open, including a lawsuit by faculty alleging breach of contract and a case brought by alumnae, students and parents, which hit a stumbling block Wednesday.
The circuit court judge, James Updike, Jr., declined Wednesday to issue the injunction that was sought in that case, stopping the school from closing. But he ordered the school not to sell any assets for the next six months.
A spokeswoman for Sweet Briar said of the Amherst County appeal, “Our lawyers will be carefully reviewing the appeal of the Bedford Circuit Court’s ruling on April 15, and they will respond in an appropriate and timely manner.”
As to the other case, brought by a group of alumnae, students and parents, spokeswoman Christy Jackson wrote in an email, “We agree with the court’s ruling today that it would not enjoin the closing of Sweet Briar College, and we support the court’s statement recognizing that the only thing that can save the College would be a truly substantial infusion of funds.
“We are concerned with the court’s ruling that prevents the College from selling any of its assets for six months. That ruling could negatively impact the value of those assets and the College’s ability to meet its obligations to students, faculty, staff and creditors.”
Bowyer declined to comment Wednesday night, but sent a statement which read, in part,
“Time is of the essence. We are seeking an expedited review in the Supreme Court of four key issues in the case with the hope that the Court’s rulings will help facilitate the correct resolution in the Circuit Court. We are hopeful the Court will act promptly and favorably on our Petition.”
The petition asks for expedited consideration of four issues: “that the College is a trustee; that the Circuit Court erred in ruling that it did not have the statutory authority under the Charitable Solicitations Act to enjoin closure of the College; that the County Attorney has standing to sue to enforce the terms of a charitable trust; and that the Circuit Court erred in refusing to grant a temporary injunction to halt respondents’ (the defendants in the case below) violation of State law.”
It asks the Supreme Court to stop the college from taking further steps to close, requires it to continue operating until all the legal cases are resolve, and to appoint a fiduciary to operate the college pending resolution of the case.
An alumnae group formed to try to stop the closure, Saving Sweet Briar, issued a statement Wedneday:
“While we were pleased that Bedford County Circuit Court Judge James W. Updike Jr issued a temporary injunction prohibiting the use of solicited funds for the closing of Sweet Briar College, we were disappointed that Judge Updike didn’t use his full authority to stop the closure of our beloved college,” said Sarah Clement, Chair of Saving Sweet Briar. “Today’s appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court by County Attorney Bowyer provides a compelling and clear legal argument for why the closure should be stopped. If successful, students, faculty and staff can be assured of another academic year while a permanent decision over the future of the college is settled through the courts.
“…In her appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court, County Attorney Bowyer highlighted the legal testimony provided by a number of expert witnesses at the April 15th Circuit Court trial that made it clear there was no immediate need to close the college and that viable options exist to boost enrollment and strengthen the college’s finances to help ensure a long term and successful future.”
Meanwhile… there’s also a case pending from faculty, alleging breach of contract, among other things.