This story has been updated.
On the eve of the last planned graduation for Sweet Briar College, the Virginia Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear arguments about its slated closure.
The court scheduled a hearing for June 4, giving supporters hope that it might be possible to stave off the shuttering of their beloved 114-year-old women’s college. Saturday’s commencement has been seen by many in the college community as a bittersweet end for the school, though alumnae and others close to Sweet Briar have been fighting to keep the doors open.
In March, president James F. Jones Jr. shocked the campus community when he abruptly announced that the private Virginia college would close forever at the end of the summer because of “insurmountable” financial challenges. Since then, alumnae, faculty and others have been working to reverse the decision, including filing lawsuits, raising money, questioning the president’s and board members’ data and decision-making, and participating in protests.
The dispute has become so pitched that Jones on Friday told seniors rehearsing for graduation that he would not take part in the ceremony.
“After much deliberation and consultation with members of the campus community, I write with great sadness to tell you that I have reluctantly decided not to participate in Saturday’s commencement ceremony,” he wrote. “In the last twenty-four hours, it has come to my attention that there are faculty members and alumnae who have threatened, sometimes quite publicly, to repeatedly disrupt the ceremony tomorrow should I preside, despite the fact that my doing so would honor the College’s tradition to preside as have all other Sweet Briar presidents.”
This week, Marcia Thom-Kaley, an assistant professor of music at Sweet Briar, wrote an open letter to the president, published in the Roanoke Times opinion section, which implored Jones not to attend graduation. It read, in part,
“Your presence at graduation will only serve to continue to divide us. You will potentially subject yourself and your family to open criticism, verbal assault and disdainful treatment. You will force us to choose between our love for our students and our innate belief that wrongdoing should never be celebrated nor ignored – on any level. Indeed, you will ask us to turn away from our deepest calling as teachers and behave in a manner in which we would never ask our students to behave – quiet, complicit, apathetic.”
She wrote that some might call it respectful to attend the ceremony without speaking out, but questioned how they could remain silent with so much at stake.
“…I do believe, however, that we can have the Commencement Ceremony our graduates deserve if you will grant us this one favor,” she wrote. “In doing so, you will show us that you do, indeed, care about us as a community. Regardless of your apparent commitment to closing our beloved home, please consider giving us one last space to grieve together for what we have endured these past nine weeks; give us one last opportunity to truly celebrate our students without interruption. Finally, give us one last opportunity to be the family we have become.”
Some students had talked about not shaking Jones’s hand as they crossed the stage.
On May 1, the senior class officers sent an e-mail requesting graduation attendees to “please respect our wishes to have a peaceful, traditional and joyful ceremony.”
“We understand that this year is unlike any other, but we also want to try to finish our last year how we have been planning to from the start,” the e-mail read, in part. “We want to remember Sweet Briar as we have experienced it: the beauty of the campus, the traditions, and the deep bond of sisterhood that has brought us all together.”
Suri Xia, who had expected to graduate Saturday before the college closing was announced, was upset and angered by Jones’s letter.
“The students have never threatened, have never talked about disturbing commencement,” she said.
“I do not appreciate the fact that he is accusing the students or faculty or alumnae for disturbing this commencement,” she said. “That’s not true. As if we are all attacking him!” Many people are upset with the decision to close, she said, but most people agree commencement is a day to rise above disagreements.
She sent results of an informal survey of seniors:
As part of graduation celebrations, Jones had recently hosted the traditional toast at the president’s house. One student said he kept remarks lighthearted there and focused on the women’s achievements.
Here is the full text of Jones’ letter:
Dear Members of the Sweet Briar Community:
After much deliberation and consultation with members of the campus community, I write with great sadness to tell you that I have reluctantly decided not to participate in Saturday’s commencement ceremony. In the last twenty-four hours, it has come to my attention that there are faculty members and alumnae who have threatened, sometimes quite publicly, to repeatedly disrupt the ceremony tomorrow should I preside, despite the fact that my doing so would honor the College’s tradition to preside as have all other Sweet Briar presidents.
I was deeply moved by the senior class officers’ call on May 1 for a peaceful, traditional, and joyful ceremony, and while this year is like no other in Sweet Briar’s history, I had sincerely hoped their wish would be honored. I am also confident that the vast majority of our alumnae and our faculty share my belief that commencement is solely about celebrating our graduating students and their families. Yet, I have made this decision because I do not want anything to distract from what should be a celebration of our students’ academic success. Dean Amy Jessen-Marshall has graciously agreed to preside over commencement in my absence.
To those students who had wanted me to present them their diplomas, please know how deeply sorry and disappointed I am. I will, however, still participate in baccalaureate this afternoon, and I look forward to visiting with you and your families at the reception immediately following the service on the lawns of Sweet Briar House.
To the Class of 2015, I send you my heartfelt congratulations on this milestone in your life. Wherever life’s path leads you, I wish you a happy and successful future. I know that you will make us all proud and that you will always be honorable Sweet Briar women in thought, word, and deed in your adult lives. Please never hesitate to contact me if I can be of any assistance to you in the years to come.
Yours very truly,
James F. Jones Jr. President, Sweet Briar College
President Emeritus, Trinity College
President Emeritus, Kalamazoo College