AG Herring versus the Sweet Briar Stakeholders: A Fable for Our Times

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Ag Herring

May 12, 2015; Washington Post

As the Washington Post points out, Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring may not have fully grasped what he was looking at in the melee over the proposed closing of Sweet Briar College.

On the one side, we have the board, which voted in February to close the institution by August 25th, and on the other, there’s a grouping of diverse stakeholders who 1) feel the decision was badly and inadvisably made, and 2) feel the college’s closing will harm them and is a violation of donor terms. 

Herring may not have fully realized that he is serving as attorney general in a time when stakeholders are not allowing themselves to be done to. The Market Basket dispute, the Komen dispute, and the San Diego Orchestra dispute all prove that. Further, he may not have realized that there is increasing precedent for attorneys general to step in when a dispute is brewing at a nonprofit and a board’s due diligence is called into question. His claims to neutrality, in contrast, are themselves a declaration that he is bound to commit an act of omission, never mind that he filed an amicus brief opposing the active intervention of the Amherst County attorney, Ellen Brower.

Through that misunderstanding, Herring may cost himself politically. Jenna Portnoy, writing for the Post, asserts “the flap could have political consequences for Herring, who, 16 months into his term as attorney general, is widely seen as positioning himself for a gubernatorial run in 2017.”

Herring, as Portnoy points out, is supportive of same-sex marriage, abortion rights, and immigration reform. “He has tried to emphasize that he is friendly on issues of particular importance to women,” she writes. Need we point out that many of the all-women college’s stakeholders are women? What this means is that he will have some active detractors among those who may have been active allies—but that is almost beside the point. Herring could easily have intervened to ensure that these charitable assets were best used. His lack of movement has resulted in current and future assets lost.

“The attorney general just wants to sit around a table and chat. He needs to move more aggressively,” Del. Ben L. Cline (R-Rockbridge) said. “He needs to force answers to the questions that have been put to Sweet Briar.”

Meanwhile, Herring continues to think he is in a situation in which an act of omission is not powerful in and of itself. “Consistent with our duty under Virginia law, we will ensure that Sweet Briar’s assets are used in a way that is in the public interest and as close as possible to the donation’s original purpose,” Herring said, as students and faculty scramble to figure out their own next steps.—Ruth McCambridge


  • Laura Symons

    Herring’s situation is worse than you describe. The word in Virginia was that he encouraged Brower to pursue the litigation and then turned around and submitted the largest amicus brief anyone including the judge had ever seen in these parts and about which the judge ruled was incorrect in it’s reading of the law. So, it was bad form at minimum and made folks wonder if there wasn’t something in this for Herring. Conspiracy theories abound, none favorable to Herring.

  • Chantel Bartlett

    Herring can be assured of a failed election in Virginia should he not look more closely at the actions of the Sweet Briar College Board of Directors. There are thousands of Virginia voters who support the Saving Sweet Briar movement who will most definitely not vote for Herring. He needs to think long and hard about his political aspirations.

  • Karen Jaffa ( – )

    Herring better keep his grubby hands off our endowement that was given for the express purpose of supporting Sweet Briar College. He seems eager to help Jones and Rice liquidate it for their own secret purposes.
    Let’s just put it this way…he has a little window here to reverse course and come in wearing the white hat to reverse the closure. If he wants to stay aligned with the evil-doers, he will be remembered as being as slimy as they are.

  • Katherine Barrett Baker

    The Richmond Times Dispatch paper version (never put up on line) reported the DAY AFTER the surprise announcement of Sweet Briar’s closing, Jim Jones (the purported Interim President) and Scott Shank were IN The Hon. Mark R. Herring’s office discussing the disbursement of the college assets. The VERY DAY AFTER. One week later, Mark Herring gave Ellen Bowyer, the Amherst County Commonwealth’s Attorney his good “blessing.” Fine. Two weeks later for some unknown reason to all, Mark Herring flip flopped. He filed a 10 PAGE Amicus Brief opposing the active intervention of Ellen Bowyer. Why? Why? Why? Judge Updike commented he had never seen anything like it in his 37 years on the bench. People do not do things for no reason. Dr. Phil says decisions are made out of fear and/or for financial gain. Again, the citizens of Virginia, and even some outside of VA, are now watching this case play out are asking WHY the 180 degree turn? This past week, after Mr. Herring stepped into a nest of 12,000 hornet mad Alumnae, he is now sitting on the fence waiting for the VA Supreme Court’s decision at the end of this week so he may jump again onto what he perceives as the “right side” of the fence. Regardless of the outcome, one of the smartest, most capable, most powerful friends I have from NYC, who is also a SBC Alum, has VOWED to come down here and run a campaign against Mr. Herring if he ever decides to run for Governor, and she can’t wait to do so, and I have NO doubt 12,000 devoted Alumnae will join her stance against Mark Herring’s lack of leadership, and lack of support for one of Virginia’s most venerable 114 year old, historic women’s colleges. Leaders do not flip flop for no reason. Leaders make decisions and stick to them even when taking heat for these decisions. Leaders do not sit on the fence. Neville Chamberlain sat on the fence. Churchill did not.

  • SBCMom’17

    SWEETBRIARGATE will have lasting consequences for AG Herring in any future aspirations. It appears he chose the route of politics, Good Ole Boys, UVA networks, etc. to influence what are his legal duties and it will cost him dearly. Ringing in my ears is his quote that in reference to the Sweet Briar BOD “It is their school and their decision”. Not so fast there AG, you have a duty to uphold the law for the public and serve the great state of Virginia. Precedent for his involvement exists and he cannot simply ignore his legal obligations. The meetings are being held due to pressure to appear to communicate and arbitrate but the SBC BOD has no intention to work with anyone to save this institution. In fact, their actions over a period of years point toward an intentional destruction through carefully crafted decisions, omissions, lack of information, false evidence and preconceived notions. How they have managed to say NOTHING since dropping the nuclear bomb on every stakeholder March 3rd is beyond me. No one closes an institution and simply says it’s our choice and we don’t have any legal duty to show you anything or tell you anything. We beg to differ. Not only did SBC’s BOD and Legal advisors miscalculate the stakeholders, their arrogance allowed for no active PR plan and to say their response to date has been weak would be an understatement. AG flip flops to come will be duly noted and remembered. We seek to know the truth, to hold the key culprits accountable for their actions and it is my personal hope that sanctions will be levied as appropriate. Those of us with students, who supported SBC, paid our tuition and made a commitment for four years have been thrown asunder. We’ve been wiped out in the eye fo the storm, some 500 plus students whom the BOD does not owe anything to and have allegedly notndamaged in any way. Add the faculty, the staff, the devastation to the reputation of an institution = incalculable destruction. Through proper governance and leadership this would have never happened. SBC’s BOD failed and what a legacy to tarnish each and every one of them. But even worse is the legacy of AG Herring, an elected official that failed due to political influences. SWEETBRIARGATE will be a thorn in his side that he cannot remove. Meanwhile, may Sweet Briar and those who support her be reminded that ‘She who has earned the rose may bear it’.

  • Martha Fruehauf

    The attorney general should pay greater attention to the larger issues at hand concerning the closing of Sweet Briar College. Donors, such as myself, who make grant decisions to VA nonprofit organizations, like Sweet Briar College, University of VA, William & Mary, VaTech, the Faison School for Autism in Richmond, etc… are watching carefully. Sir, if you cannot protect those of us who support nonprofits from organizations that appear to be fraudulently soliciting funds, who will? I (and others in my position) am becoming very wary about making charitable gifts in the State of Virginia. I am a woman and I vote, as do my friends.

    Martha S. Fruehauf
    Charlottesville, VA
    Sweet Briar College Class of 1980

  • kim cool

    There is no compromise here ..either he tries to save Sweet Briar or he sides with a board that seems to have its own adgenda…..One that may have less to do with education at one of the finest women’s colleges and more to do with personal gain from control of the fourth largest college campus in the country. An 84 million endowment pales next to the value of that land even if it cannot be sold. Herring should be looking into that…and if not why not..especially given his actions so far.

  • virginia greene

    I’m afraid it’s already too late for Mr. Herring to mend his fences. His Amicus brief in response to the Amherst Commonwealth Attorney was not just too long, it seems to me that it was in error. The Sweet Briar Institute was established as a corporation by the Legislature, true, but the Trustees were enjoined to abide by the stipulations of the Will–to educate young women, and never to sell off the property. Sitting around a table with a mediator is just window dressing. I think Mr. Herring will soon learn that there are a lot of Sweet Briar women in Virginia, and all of them can read, think, and vote.

  • virginia greene

    It would be nice if he would think about truth, justice, and transparency in fiscal behavior, too.

  • Elizabeth Dietrich

    I hope every member of the SBC Board will listen to Mayor Teresa Pike Tomlinson’s commencement address. She is an alumna of the school and invited by SBC administration to speak. She gave a spectacular speech of leadership and rallied the supporters of Saving Sweet Briar. Never Give In