Sweet Briar Stakeholders Continue Campaign while “Waiting for a Schneiderman”

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April 13, 2015; Washington Post, “Grade Point”

The precipitous decision by its board and president to close Sweet Briar College has created a situation in which the assets of the college are irresponsibly endangered. This has left supporters in the group Saving Sweet Briar hoping that Virginia’s attorney general will take a page from N.Y. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s interventionist book.

As readers may know, in just the past week, Schneiderman has intervened on Cooper Union and a pair of Brooklyn organizations for situations that, while not identical, were clear cases of asset wasting or misuse on the part of boards.

As it is, students are, as they must, looking to find a backup institution, and this would rob the school of a student body and the income associated with it. The faculty is likely also trying to find a way out, which would remove yet another asset, but in the meantime, 84 members of that faculty and 65 staff have filed a friend of the court motion in a lawsuit brought by Amherst County Attorney Ellen Bowyer.

The College responded that it intended “to oppose the motion on the grounds it is procedurally improper.”

Last week, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring let the court know through an amicus brief that, in his opinion, the county attorney did not have standing in the case, that his office was, in fact, the voice of the public, and he did not choose to intervene. In fact, he wrote, “The Attorney General is concerned that the disruption and conflict engendered by challenges raised against the decision of the Sweet Briar Board of Directors to close Sweet Briar are counterproductive to protecting the interests of the public, the students, alumnae, faculty, administrators and staff of Sweet Briar, and other interested parties.” Thus, his point appears to be that all of these irate stakeholders are misguided and working against their own interests.

Herring appears to be of the mindset that he will wait until the Sweet Briar Board presents a plan to his office, and then decide whether or not it is to be supported. By that time, the whole thing might be moot. Not the kind of Schneiderman-style activist AG profile these stakeholders might long for.—Ruth McCambridge


  • Michael Carl

    NPQ is doing a great job on pursing this story with vigor and objectivity.

    Reviewing some of what has not only been rumored, but substantiated in testimony this week, it is clear that:
    • A decision was made NOT to hire a Director/ Dean of Admissions, whose primary role is to recruit students, thus generating revenue for the college and providing for its continued operation.
    • Not hiring a Development Director, whose primary job it is to bring money into the college, thus providing for its continued operation.
    • Paying gross amounts of money to consultants, and then not letting them ever finish their report, and not even bothering to use any advice – the same consultants that provided info for another college to turn itself around. It’s like tossing cash, desperately needed cash, out the window.
    • The Chairman of the Board and interim President keeping every discussion in complete secret from anyone who might make a difference, whom may offer or find any means of generating or contributing revenue – being entirely opaque from a key constituency, especially when there are obvious examples of this being successful elsewhere.
    • The Chairman of the Board hiring a President without even consulting the entire Board of Directors, much less the faculty and college community – his hand picked man.
    • Removing any board members that express opposition to the course decided upon by the Chairman of the Board.
    • Surprising other experienced outsiders who were shocked at the closing, who have knowledge of the industry from multiple perspectives and thought it unwarranted.
    • An Attorney General taking the very unusual step of inserting himself directly into the type of discussion he normally does not (says the judge), and to try to stop a trial before it even gets started. Meanwhile, a State Attorney in NY is getting involved with a college that is getting in trouble – two very different profiles of what the role of the person whose primary job is to protect the public should be.
    • A Chairman of the Board and an interim President being entirely aware that the land upon which the college sits would be extremely valuable and desirable to others. A Chairman of the Board whose own business and financial interests would benefit from the redevelopment of the land for other purposes if he were to pursue those interests.
    • An attorney for the college who over and over tried to get the trial dismissed before evidence could be entered into court and made public.
    • Completely ignoring the requests of the local Mayor, the Board of Supervisors, and a massive outpouring of alumni support ready to contribute and support the college.

    It wouldn’t be a surprise if one wondered if this wasn’t a hostile takeover from within?

    One might also wonder if the other members of the other board of directors weren’t ready to change their vote. The question is did they really know everything that they discovered this week? Did they truly know it was this bad? Would they have decided differently if they knew then what they know now? Will they change their mind now?

    Would the surrounding community, where being completely unaware of what was going on under the cone of silence and in secret, be outraged enough to do what they can to stop this?

    Would people who donate money to organizations, who have a choice to donate to so many different organizations, want to put a stop now to runaway and unaccountable Chairmen and Presidents? To draw the line “here”?

    Would people who plan on leaving significant wealth and property to causes they care deeply about want to see those request tossed aside by others who might not feel bound by being loyal to their interests? Do they want to see this case, which has been presented in a public court of law, become a precedent and put their future donations into the the causes they care deeply about at risk?

    Do people who plan on sending their sons and daughters to college, and entrusting their futures to leaders that may not feel that same sense of obligation and duty to that same college that has been entrusted to these leaders, thus jeopardizing the futures of their sons and daughters?

    Maybe right here, right now is the time to say “No more.” Next time you see Paul Rice, James Jones, or a director in the local Starbucks, ask them.