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Settlement saves Sweet Briar College from closure

Graduating seniors at Sweet Briar college participate in the traditional senior ride on the quad in May. Associated Press/Photo by Steve Helber

Settlement saves Sweet Briar College from closure

A Virginia circuit court gave final approval Monday to a plan to save Sweet Briar College, a 114-year-old all-female private university located in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The deal concludes months of fighting to prevent the school’s projected August closing.

In early March, the college’s trustees announced the school would shutter its doors, citing declining enrollment and financial challenges. But alumnae banded together to stop the closure, forming a non-profit called Saving Sweet Briar, Inc.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring announced the settlement Saturday. The non-profit raised $21 million in pledges toward saving the school, and agreed to donate $12 million of the funds for the upcoming academic year. It will send the first $2.5 million to school administrators July 2.

“Today’s settlement is an answer to the prayers for many and a powerful validation of the value of fighting for what you believe in,” said Sarah Clement, chairwoman of Saving Sweet Briar.

The settlement ends months of litigation involving the state attorney general, college administration, and those fighting the closure. Amherst County Attorney Ellen Bowyer led the court challenge, arguing the college operates as a trust and requires court approval to close. The college argued it was a corporation and could close without court approval.

In the settlement, Herring agreed to ease restrictions on $16 million of the college’s endowment. The settlement also requires 13 board members to resign and the election of at least 18 new members from a candidate list supplied by the closure’s opponents. The current president, James F. Jones Jr. will step down in seven days. Phillip Stone, a former president of Bridgewater College, is expected to take his place. Stone is credited with saving Bridgewater when it faced financial troubles of its own.

“I am enthusiastic and optimistic about what lies ahead,” Stone said in a statement. “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.”

Alumnae, students, and faculty questioned the administration’s claim of financial woes almost immediately following the March announcement. And higher education experts also expressed surprise, considering the college’s large endowment. The school, built on a 3,250-acre campus in the Blue Ridge Mountains, had about $85 million in endowed funds when the administration announced the closure. But the college’s debt exceeded the unrestricted endowment funds, and the college needed about 250 more students to stay afloat, lawyer Calvin Fowler said.

But for now, Sweet Briar will stay open.

“Looking back, all parties wanted to preserve the legacy of the college, one through orderly closure, and the other by keeping the college open,” Herring said. “The agreed settlement certainly is better for all parties than continued litigation.”

Sweet Briar’s student body consisted of about 530 students in the spring. While some already switched to other schools, many said they would return if able. And the school is already receiving calls from students seeking to enroll, The Washington Post reported.

“The strength of faith the alumnae have demonstrated in their college is extraordinary,” said Bowyer. “[It] will stand the college in good stead in the future.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Courtney Crandell Courtney is a former WORLD correspondent.

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