Judicial Standing Should Not Be the Only Standing that Matters at Sweet Briar

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Save Sweet Briar

April 15, 2015;Roanoke Times

NPQ has been following the case of Sweet Briar College, where the board and president voted to close the institution only to be faced with a storm of objections by alumnae, donors, and faculty. A resistance group called Saving Sweet Briar quickly emerged and has raised pledges worth $10 million, demanded the board and president resign, and mounted a legal effort to enjoin the college from closing. One of the suits being pursued was brought by Amherst County Attorney Ellen Bowyer and joined by a group of faculty and staff; this suit was heard over two days with a decision that is less than satisfying to Saving Sweet Briar.

At a Bedford circuit court hearing Wednesday, Judge James Updike refused to enjoin Sweet Briar College officials from proceeding with their plans to close the institution, but he did rule that they were not to use any charitable contributions to pay for that process. He based the ruling on the limited standing of Amherst County Attorney Ellen Bowyer, who had been given standing to bring the suit despite opposition expressed in an amicus brief filed by the Attorney General. Ruling that the college was a corporation rather than a trust, the judge declined to issue a broader injunction that would have provided time and a fair process for reviewing the sustainability of the college by not only blocking the closure process but also removing the president and board. The county attorney is apparently moving forward with an appeal.

In all of these legal actions, the question of who has judicial standing has been central. The core requirement of standing is that you have been harmed or are in imminent danger of being harmed by the actions of the defendant. But judicial standing is one thing; basic respect for partners who have long invested their time and treasure in you on the understanding that your futures are tied up together is another. Nonprofits depend upon such partners in general, and Sweet Briar is no different. NPQ wrote earlier about what appeared to be a lack of ethical behavior on the part of the college president, who accepted a million dollar pledge from Theresa Tomlinson (an alumna and the mayor of Columbus, Georgia) right before the decision to close was made with a nice handwritten note that read, “What a wonderful thing you have done!” Tomlinson said she was never informed that anything was amiss.

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A few days ago, on Monday, April 13th, Mayor J. Paul Kilgore of Amherst, Virginia, sent a letter to Sweet Briar’s president James F. Jones, Jr., and Board of Directors chairman Paul G. Rice, entreating that “every avenue be explored to restore the financial viability necessary to keep this historic and unique institution alive for another century.” Kilgore makes a distinction between legal standing and the town’s very real standing as a partner. In the close relationship between Amherst and Sweet Briar, he writes, if one side were removed, the other would suffer.

He writes that Amherst has invested in Sweet Briar as a partner in, for instance, constructing a waste water treatment plant in the early ’70s when Sweet Briar needed it, and again in 1996 when Amherst allowed Sweet Briar to connect to Amherst’s system, selling the water to Sweet Briar at lower rates than are charged to other consumers.

“We have obvious concerns that the cessation of operations and closing of Sweet Briar College will have a tremendous negative effect on the Town of Amherst in the areas of economic activity, education and culture,” Kilgore wrote. “We are also concerned about the employees and tenants of on-campus housing who have been or will be disrupted by the closing who are ‘de facto’ utility customers of the Town.”

While “judicial standing” is one thing, writes Kilgore, “it is beyond question that the Town of Amherst has ‘standing’ as a partner, stakeholder and, depending on the future outcome, casualty of the closing of Sweet Briar College.”—Ruth McCambridge


  • douglas

    As a “faculty kid” who grew up on the campus of Sweet Briar in the 1970s, I will freely admit to a heavy bias in favor of the college remaining open. But no bias interferes with the observation that this was a well-written and structured article that raises an often-overlooked point in all the strum und drang surrounding the apparent abdication of fiduciary duty by the President and Board.

    Bottom line: good job and good writing. Thanks.

  • Stacey Sickels Locke

    Thank you Nonprofit Quarterly for appropriately raising the issues so important to ALL nonprofits, schools, colleges and institutions governed by Boards in whom we place our trust.

    By now, much evidence has come out about the lack of proper administration at Sweet Briar College and the horrid lack of good governance by the Board of Directors. I encourage you to continue to report on these issues.

    The momentum of the group established to save Sweet Briar is unlike any other stakeholder “revolt” I have ever seen. The alumnae have formed working groups, have sophisticated volunteer structure for raising funds, are exploring creative approaches to the future and have RETAINED NOTED EXPERTS IN EVERY AREA WHO HAVE PROVEN SUCCESS TURNING AROUND INSTITUTIONS.

    This is not just a small group of women – it is THOUSANDS of women, men, students, parents, faculty, staff, alumnae, community members and national leaders who believe what has happened is WRONG and should be REVERSED.

    Keep up the good work. I have written about other issues you might wish to explore on my blog: http://www.beingunlocked.com

    Kind regards,

    Stacey Sickels Locke
    Sweet Briar College, Class of 1988
    Volunteer for the Major Gift Committee, Saving Sweet Briar
    Senior Director of Development, University of Maryland

  • SBC Mom 2017

    As the article points out, WHO has Judicial Standing is at the center of the machinations to keep Sweet Briar College open. This Board has forgotten an essential element in this entire debacle: WHO they are supposed to serve. As Kline points out, Amherst is a partner, has standing as a stakeholder and could be negatively impacted. Observing this shutdown mentality unfold makes very clear that this BOD did not serve who they were appointed to serve. Mr. Rice, Mr. Jones and others are treating Sweet Briar as though it is THEIR company to do as they wish. Really? They serve as board members and have inherent responsibilities that they have chosen to ignore. Every stakeholder shares in this decision yet they left everyone out of the decision process and to add further insult the Board refuses to share the very information, copies of reports, doesn’t want to review evidence in court as it is a waste of time? There has been no respect shown to any stakeholder, ethical behavior is out the window and we have endured six weeks of silence to date. This Board has no interest in working with any SavingSweetBriar stakeholder. We are all stunned and when legal is our only option it speaks volumes about the pathetic Board we have to fight to try to remind them they work for us, we are the stakeholders, we have everything to lose. I feel like we are dealing with a petulant teenager that is refusing to own up to their responsibilities and admit fault.. There truly has been a storm created by WHO else? the stakeholders…Now what we need is what this Board chose not to seek… “Alignment is a condition in which the key elements of an organization—its people, strategy, customers, and processes—work in concert to serve its primary purpose, thereby increasing value for stakeholders” – George Labovitz,Phd. We will save Sweet Briar in spite of teh Board.

  • Ruth McCambridge

    much obliged!

  • Elizabeth Dietrich

    This case has been an interesting look into the world of non-profit charitable organizations in Virginia. I am a Virginia resident and have been dismayed to find that the ruling that Sweet Briar College is a non-profit corporation rather than a charitable trust (it was formed by a generous bequest), means that the Board of Directors can close it down at any time without approval from anyone. Approval must be obtained for converting funds that were donated for specific purposes, but apparently not for those without restrictions. I will be reconsidering where my future annual donations go and will be making sure that none go to a Virginia non-profit corporation.

  • Joe K.

    Concur that this a well-written article, and I thank you for it.

    I can’t believe the lack of care and concern for ANY stakeholders shown by the “leadership” team. Is it INCOMPETENCE or SUBVERSION? : History will decide.

    Either way (and I believe there is BOTH, in every person who had a hand in making the decision to close), this is the saddest death blow imagineable against a school: what young person is EVER going to commit to attending Sweet Briar now, even assuming 100% success of Saving Sweet Briar and its compatriots? What loving parent will EVER again encourage and support their child’s interest in going to a place with this spectre hanging over it? Even if the closure is halted, how on earth can anyone imagine getting and keeping good faculty, coaches, program directors, etc…to say nothing of getting STUDENTS to come? For students: tuition, room, and Board would have to be FREE for the next couple of years; as for getting and keeping competent faculty and others: they’d all have to be compensated as high-risk employees for a long while, with amazing pay, benefits, and multi-year Severence benefit packages.
    Those super-Expensive components will be necessary to get students, faculty, and others to sign on. They’d all be accepting that Abrupt Closure of their school– their HOME for those college years!!– can occur at any time.. Heartbreaking!

    Full disclosure: I’m a parent of two amazing college-age women at other schools (one of which is an all-women’s college), which both have solid governance and commiment to the students,