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Sweet Briar survives: Judge approves settlement deal to keep the college open

Sweet Briar College (Steve Helber/AP)

Supporters jumped to their feet, cheered and called out, “Holla, holla!” Monday after a circuit court judge approved a deal Monday to keep Sweet Briar College open next year.

That morning, lawyers from all sides — including those representing the three lawsuits challenging the decision to close the private women’s college; those representing the college administration; and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring — made the case for saving Sweet Briar.

They presented a signed settlement agreement to Bedford County Circuit Court Judge James W. Updike Jr., who quickly approved the plan.

Even as they celebrated the victory, advocates were asking: What next? There were a host of unknowns. New leadership will take over and try to recreate a college with a long and beloved history, but one that was struggling recently and that has been, effectively, emptied out over the past few months. Some of the hurdles ahead:  Converting pledged donations to hard cash, recruiting a freshman class mid-summer … and trying to entice students, faculty and employees who had  been told to leave to please come back to Sweet Briar.

Some experts warned that it would be all but impossible.

Many advocates were determined. Calls have already been flooding in from students wanting to enroll, Taylor said. He told an alumna: “This was a near-death experience. It may serve as a springboard to allow you all to do things you couldn’t do before” by raising the school’s profile and renewing the emotional and financial support of alumnae.

[Agreement reached to keep Sweet Briar open next year]

For the immediate future, the complicated, detailed settlement agreement offered solutions to the thorniest problems: Who would lead the school and where would they get the money to keep it open?

“It has been emotional for everyone,” said Ashley L. Taylor Jr., who has been working for months to help an alumnae group fighting the closure, and difficult for the current board and president to agree to step aside. “No one let their ego get in the way of doing the right thing.”

[Sweet Briar to close for financial reasons]

On March 3, Sweet Briar’s president, James F. Jones Jr., called sudden meetings of faculty and students and announced — to screams, and tears — that the college faced “insurmountable financial challenges” and would have to shutter its doors at the end of August.

He argued that the liberal arts college, known for its equestrian and engineering programs and its sprawling campus in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, had lost critical revenue and enrollment, had mounting maintenance and other costs and had been drawing down its endowment at an undesirable rate. Suddenly, incoming freshmen learned that they had to apply to other schools, current students had to transfer, faculty and employees began looking for new jobs.

[She got into her first-choice college. Then found out on Facebook it was closing.]

But a fight began immediately, on multiple fronts. Now the opposition has united, and — somewhat miraculously — reached a deal with the school’s leadership.

[Board members and others held some very public fights about the issues at hand]

[Former board members weighed in, too]

[And faculty and others questioned the financial figures put forth by the school’s leaders]

“I’m just really happy,” Herring said afterward. “There were a lot of tense moments.” Mediation was his idea, he said, since he knew from the outset that it was one of those cases in which even a legal “win” might not be as successful as an agreement reached outside of the courtroom. The judge noted at the hearing, he said, that some things could be done by agreement that he couldn’t order from the bench.

Alumnae formed Saving Sweet Briar, a nonprofit that has promised under the settlement to give $12 million for the operation of the college for the 2015-2016 year, the first $2.5 million installment to be delivered in early July. 

The other $16 million in operating funds needed for the coming school year will be released, with Herring’s permission, from the college’s endowment.

Herring said the school’s leaders wanted to be certain that enough money was available to keep the school operational through the school year, making sure students and faculty were protected and that there were assurances for accreditors.

Jones and at least 13 current board members will step down, 18 new board members will be selected, and the new board is expected to appoint former college president Phillip Stone to lead the school.

“After seeing the extraordinary passion, courage and strength of the Sweet Briar alumnae, I feel privileged to be asked to join their heroic efforts to save this great college,” Stone said in a statement. “I want to make it clear that my commitment is not merely to keep the college open for the coming school year but to help it embark on a path for its next 100 years!  I am enthusiastic and optimistic about what lies ahead. With the support of such wonderful alumnae and so many other supporters and friends of Sweet Briar I am confident the college’s finest years can still lie ahead.”

All litigation is now dissolved.

“The Sweet Briar community awoke today with smiles on our faces and gratitude in our hearts for what has been accomplished in saving our alma mater,” said Sarah Clement, chair of Saving Sweet Briar. The group acknowledged challenges ahead — including figuring out financial aid, and academic offerings, as many professors have accepted jobs elsewhere — and encouraged students to halt their transfer processes. They asked for patience.

“As the transition process advances, and Sweet Briar’s anticipated new leader Phillip Stone prepares to take office, Saving Sweet Briar will be working closely with the college and incoming leadership to help answer critical questions for our students, their families and for faculty and staff,” Clement said.

Taylor said a friend recommended Stone, who had been president of Bridgewater College, another private school in Virginia, where enrollment nearly doubled during his tenure. Stone is a former president of the Virginia Bar Association, well known in the Shenandoah Valley, with leadership experience in the accrediting agency the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

“If you were to go to Hollywood and draw up the perfect person [to step in], it’s Phil Stone,”  Taylor said.

Next week, the new board is expected to act to continue the school’s operations past Aug. 25.

Faculty may receive severance payments or be offered jobs on campus. Some had accepted new contracts with the stipulation that if Sweet Briar remained open, they would return to that campus, Taylor said.

A higher education marketing expert, Rob Moore, warned that the college faces numerous challenges, both short- and long-term. Will alumnae keep giving so generously, once the immediate crisis has passed? With no incoming freshman, and most current students having made other plans for the fall, how will they fill their classes? How will they convince prospective students that the college is stable and will remain open in the future?

Moore said the school will have to quickly ramp up marketing efforts, persuade prospective students and their parents the school has something unique to offer, encourage alumnae to commit not just money but efforts to increase enrollment, and find creative ways to increase revenue, perhaps utilizing the more-than-3,200-acre campus.

Sweet Briar’s supporters were jubilant, cheering and crying to celebrate the end of so much hard work. And they were aware of how much work lay ahead. They urged one another, again and again, to convert pledges to cash for the school.

Charlotte Hopkins, who graduated in May, said:  “Relief is the first thought. Of course practically, there are all the challenges. We have a year to — we’re not on borrowed time,that makes it sound so negative — but all right, we have another year, we have to pull it together. We have $21 million pledged, we have to have it in hand. We’ve been fighting, now we need to really put it into high gear.”

She hopes everyone can come flocking back and re-enroll for the fall semester, she said. “I understand some of these girls have made deposits, have made plans.” On social media, though, she had already seen lots of posts: “I’m coming home! I get to go home!”

Suri Xia, an international student, had to move quickly to keep her visa in order. She will be attending Mount Holyoke in the fall, expecting to graduate in May, and it’s much too complicated and too late for her to switch back, she said. But she promised to donate her first paycheck from her summer job in New York to Saving Sweet Briar, and planned to continue contributing to help rebuild the school. “I am and I always will be a Sweet Briar woman,” she said.

Here is the signed settlement agreement and order:

Moriah Balingit contributed to this report.