Virginia Claims Sweet Briar Closing Vote was Precipitous, Unwarranted and Unlawful

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Sweet Briar

March 30, 2015;News & Advance (Lynchburg, VA)

NPQ has been covering the case of Sweet Briar College, whose board of directors recently voted to close the school, only to be met with stakeholder resistance. A good deal of that resistance has been organized by a group named Saving Sweet Briar, which more than a week ago threatened legal action if the board and president did not step down. On Saturday, the online version of the Roanoke Times ran an editorial musing on why legal action against the president and board of Sweet Briar College has been so slow to be filed. But that may have been a bit premature.

The Amherst County attorney is now seeking an injunction on behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia to block the closing and force the removal of the president and board of directors. Calling the closing “not only precipitous and unwarranted (but) also unlawful,” county attorney Ellen Bowyer, who apparently has been consulting with Saving Sweet Briar, asks that a special fiduciary be appointed to take control of Sweet Briar to prevent the board from using charitable contributions for other than the intended purpose.

According to Business Insider, Sweet Briar issued the following statement after the Commonwealth’s lawsuit had been filed:

“Our legal counsel has just received the complaint from the Amherst County Attorney and will respond appropriately after a chance for careful review and analysis.”

A precedent for this lawsuit may exist in the still-open Wilson College, whose board voted to close it but was blocked after a judge ruled it hadn’t done enough to try to save the school.

Earlier yesterday, perhaps out of concern for timing, Jessica Campbell, one Sweet Briar alumna also filed a legal complaint for injunctive relief.—Ruth McCambridge

  • Stacey Sickels Locke

    I am a graduate of Sweet Briar College and a former employee. On many levels I am concerned with the current President, Board and some administrators.

    I helped raise funds in the 1990s that make up the current endowment. It pains me to think of those men and women from all over the country who gave generously for specific purposes — only to have the College try to use their generous gifts to close. Some of those donors are no longer alive and it is for them that I passionately advocate against this action.

    Many who work professionally in admissions, marketing, development, and other fields feel that the College did not do all they could to save Sweet Briar. In fact, they left key positions unfilled. The court documents show many alumnae concerned with the lack of professionalism in key areas, like fundraising.

    It is clear that more could be done and there are thousands who are willing to work towards keeping Sweet Briar’s doors open. Those who would stand in the way should step down and step aside.

    I have written more on these points in my blog at:

  • SBCMom2017

    Sweet Briar College: A Case Study on The Epic Fail of Nonprofit Leadership.

    How did this happen? An Epic Fail of Leadership by a Nonprofit Board? Too little supervision, no accountability, no transparency, no communication with any stakeholders, and ultimately a complete abdication of administrative, fiduciary responsibility and stewardship. WHAT the Sweet Briar Board has done in secrecy among a chosen few is as unconscionable as HOW they have done it. Executive session – no minutes, no reports, shredded documents, pre-planned outcomes, rushed consulting reports, the list is endless. Court documents point out a host of issues related to the lack of integrity exhibited by this nonprofit board iincluding both past and current activities included. They have failed at every level. Unethical and unlawful. Not a good combination, but certainly illustrative ofleadership run amuck.

    The rebuttal messaging from the Sweet Bre9iar Officials to the call for their resignation or the multiple lawsuits levied against them are patronizing in tone, condescending at best and reminiscent of the Interim Presidents’ embattled tenure at Trinity Univeristy where he left amid clouds of controversy a year early. The arrogance displayed is unbelievable. This Board is lucky that the women of Sweet Briar have class, brains and manners. They are highly intelligent, driven to succeed and taught to be leaders in a measured, balanced and thoughtful manner and speak in an authentic voice. I’d love to see what would happen if they had tried to pull this stunt with nearby Hampden-Sydney (an all male counterpart to Sweet Briar). I doubt it would be so “civil” . While the women of Sweet Briar may embrace traditions, sisterhood and value becoming community and thought leaders they are showing on a daily basis their civil disobedience with the unjust position they and their entire community have been placed. Sheets hanging from the Bell Tower differ daily as sentiments ring true. The latest is Sic Semper Tyrannus (reference the State of Virginia crest) Thus to the Tyrants, along with WE. ARE. NOT. GOING. TO. TAKE IT., and NOT FINISHED, are some examples of the justified outcry from students.

    On a personal note, it is unbelievable that the Interim President reached out to just about everyone in the world, including news agencies before informing any students, parents, staff, faculty, alunmae or stakeholders. Everyone knew what they were up to except those who deserved to be the first to know, who were owed the common courtesy of notification and an explanation before everyone else. The Sweet Briar community is precious, is indeed special, and once you understand it and experience it you simply cannot believe what an egregious act has been perpetrated here.

    It is time for this Board to accept responsibility for misleading everyone, misrepresenting the facts and the data and deciding in a vacuum (something NO nonprofit is supposed to do) to close a highly successful school with a 114 year history of achievement. Please step aside and let those young and bright enough to understand education now and in the future, understand the value of social media, social strategy, recruitment, development and most importantly how to govern with a purpose. What ultimately matters are the outcomes and continuing to be successful on every level. Not going through the motions and making unilateral decisions for the College and its extensive community. Leadership is REQUIRED. The current BOD and its ancillary culture just didn’t and doesn’t have it. It is our hope that they will be removed legally from their positions and true leaders that exemplify The Sweet Briar Women can step in actually lead Sweet Briar Collage to the future. SavingSweetBriar is the central hub of information reporting on Legal Updates, Student stories, Financial Fraud Investigations, News Items and Fundraising (3.3 million raised to date) to name a few items and has provided the leadership necessary to save an institution that cannot and should not go under. Imagine – Volunteers actually Leading. This is a Case Study worth exploring and ensuring a positive outcome. Visit to learn more. #SaveSweetBriar

  • William Miller

    After having spent the last four days on-campus (stayed at the inn) assisting my daughter in the impossible task of selecting a college that will match her course of study at SBC and fully accept her credits, several observations have come sharply into focus.
    The overarching imperative that is driving this self-imposed train wreck is that a foundation handing out scholarships is much easier to run (at least in the mind of the board) than a women’s college in this new century. There are two requirements necessary to accomplish this. The college must die and it must die quickly, otherwise no funds will remain to fund the foundation. I doubt the alumnae will enthusiastically contribute to a foundation bearing the SB label after having just witnessed their alma mater die a quick, chaotic, and painful death. If Indiana Fletcher Williams had wanted a scholarship fund she would have not have specified a women’s college in her will.
    SBC must die in order to convince a judge to modify the will. This is the answer to why the board has not appealed to the alumnae and faculty or asked a judge to lift the restrictions on the endowment (I am sure this will happen but only after SBC is dead). Given the language in the will, and the size of the endowment, I do not believe that a judge would support the quick death of Sweet Briar College that the board has envisioned.
    Using this foundation imperative as a tool to evaluate the actions and messages of the board and administration, the following emerges.
     Why the timing of the announcement in the middle of midterms, right before spring break, and after transfer deadlines? To create as much chaos and confusion as possible. If, in the middle of January, it was known that the only option was to close SBC, why not vote immediately? Why wait until the end of February? Faculty, students, alumnae, and parents if not in a panic may actually have time to question the decision and take action. This also allows time to modify by-laws ensuring the desired decision is reached.
     Why continue the non-disclosure agreements of the board if the college will be dead in three short months? A key component of killing SBC is to control the message that the public, students, and faculty hear. Board members voicing their opinions confuse the message, which might delay SBC’s death (or interfere with establishing a foundation).
     Why not wait until June when the consultants are due to report their findings on possible options to save SBC? They may actually find (although unlikely since boards of organizations tend to hire consultants that confirm what they already ‘know’; the echo chamber effect) an option that is feasible.
     How long has this imperative been the plan, at least for some? Looking back much becomes suspect: the president resigning, lack of enrollment and development leadership, absence of meaningful appeals to alumnae and yes I have heard the excuse that analysis of alumnae and supporters indicated an insufficient amount of possible giving. Some things defy analysis especially involving humans (just ask an economist). If your college were dying, who would not try anyway?
     Why the absence of transparency concerning raw financial data? Message control. Facts are often unwelcome and irritating ripples in the otherwise smooth delivery of the message.
     Why continue to lay new carpet and refurbish spaces (residence hall and inn)? To maintain the value of the physical plant. Greater value means more funds for the foundation.
     Why finish the library? A key factor of chaos is surprise. Not finishing the library would clearly indicate that the college is sinking quickly. In addition, a finished building is worth more than an unfinished one.
     Why the catalog entry reassuring prospective students and SBC stakeholders that the college is financially sound? See the library entry.
    I could continue but in the cause of brevity, I leave you this. Students, alumnae, faculty, parents and other stakeholders, you are major casualties of a grand plan. Don’t believe me? Wait 3 or 4 years and examine the outcome of SBC’s suicide. Sweet Briar College is 245 (out of 650) on the Forbes college list (2014), a substantial component of which is measurement of post-graduation success (The list also provides a financial rating, SBC’s is an A). Of the 16 women’s colleges on the list, SBC is ranked 8th. Combine this with the unique value-adding aspects of a Sweet Briar education and you have ample justification for saving Sweet Briar. The question now: Is it too late?

  • SBC Mom 2017

    Great points made by William Miller. Message control, strategy, secrecy are all key elements to pull off the coup they have planned, orchestrated and executed. Having run nonprofit boards nearly all of my professional life it is clear to me that the manner in which they acted is as egregious as what they have done. Unethical doesn’t begin to describe the situation. Unlawful is a little more clear. It truly was a suicidal move and how Jimmie Jones and Paul Rice have orchestrated this move (with their high priced lawyers that are gong to cost huge sums) makes it very difficult but not impossible to recover. They forgot their most important stakeholders (students, staff, faculty, alumnae) all of whom are more passionate, intelligent and visionary. This BOD gave up and should have stepped aside. There is no glory, honor or integrity in what they have done. I cannot wait for their removal and injunctive relief from the court to enable us to salvage this disaster they have created. Rice and Jones will ultimately be exposed and we need to follow the money. They can use words like “insurmountable” and “simple math” as the cause of this death, but it really is about something simple: LEADERSHIP. I’m with the women of Sweet Briar, past, current and future and agree with the most recent banner hung from the Bell Tower…You can’t Earn a Rose Hiding in a Foxhole! Here’s to honor, integrity and and ethics. Sweet Briar Forever!

  • Molly

    Thank you for taking an interest in the fight to save my alma mater. Please revise your image selection to actually show my alma mater. That building, though very nice, is not on Sweet Briar’s gorgeous campus.

  • Katherine Barrett Baker

    Great Tag line, good article, but can y’all Google up a photo of a building on Sweet Briar College campus and post it?