Herring and Sweet Briar Board “Ragging the Puck” in Race against Time

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Sweet Briar board

May 26, 2015; VirginiaWatchdog.org

NPQ has been following the case of Sweet Briar College for almost two months and the picture is as frustratingly confounding as it ever has been. From their actions, the college’s board and the Virginia state attorney general give the appearance of trying to “run down the clock”—playing heavy and unified defense until it becomes too late to reverse the board’s decision to close.

A few days ago, Watchdog.org reported on a Freedom of Information Act inquiry sent to Attorney General Mark Herring’s office, asking for documentation of the consulting that Sweet Briar College officials did with Herring’s office in the months leading up to the decision to close. (They did consult with Herring’s office, even if with no other stakeholders.) But in a classic block, Herring’s office is demanding $19,501.50 to fill the request. Herring’s “Compliance and Transparency Counsel” says that this is what it will cost to compile the communications. The itemization includes—almost cartoonishly—“the cost of a 30-minute search conducted by each of the office’s 181 attorneys” along with “two hours of review by each OAG attorney.”

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, called the AG’s $19,501 bill “a pretty spectacular estimate,” noting, “The fact that the AG’s office does not have the ability to conduct a centralized global search is concerning.”

Meanwhile, Kenric Ward at Watchdog.org reports that a review of the financial records of Sweet Briar College indicates that the school was in worse financial shape ten years ago than at the point when the board decided it had to close.

Ward says a quick analysis of Sweet Briar shows:

  • Total assets are up since 2000–01, when the college’s endowment was at a low of $77 million.
  • Debt and debt service are down.
  • Operating revenue is up.

Despite those facts, the board has declared that the trend lines indicate the college is unsustainable. And unlike most organizations, which consider various strategic changes while working to sustain what is working, the board and leadership gave up—first disinvesting in admissions and then removing the director of the alumni association, a position crucial to fundraising—all the while spending in a manner that did not exhibit caution. Kenric reports that travel and conference expenditures were each recently averaging $10,000 a week. (Keep in mind that this is a 600-student campus.)

The Washington Post reports that two of the board members who were a part of the closure decision spoke out last week, saying that the board did try sponsoring a strategic planning session, which resulted in a “Plan for Sustainable Excellence,” but gave up when their first attempts did not work. Now, new strategies not working during a period of change in the external environment is hardly unique to Sweet Briar; many nonprofits—and for-profits, for that matter—have experienced the very same thing and have gone on to save their institutions through a combination of benchmarking and incremental testing. One-shot strategic plan events are beyond passé. Change, in other words, now requires a rapidly iterative process. To suggest that this was impossible is just plain disingenuous. No professional CEO or board in these times has such luxuries as this board took.

And while the failure was occurring, alumnae say that they were neither notified of any imminent financial crisis nor asked to increase giving to their alma mater. Just a year earlier, Forbes magazine gave Sweet Briar an “A” financial grade.

So what the heck is going on? Why are Herring and the board ragging the puck?—Ruth McCambridge

  • Scott Dixon

    I don’t get it. The Board nor anyone else can profit from the closure of the nonprofit. They can’t sell it to a for profit, and they can’t profit from the land value. The only two things they can do is sell or merge with another nonprofit or close and distribute the net assets to another nonprofit. Why the current Board is so adamantly against turning the Board of Directors over to an enthusiastic group of Sweet Briar loyalists and fervent supporters I haven’t a clue. With the status of that women’s college world-wide, anyone would know that a very able and smart new Board can be assembled in a week, with some of the most ingenious corporate thinkers in the world. If the current Board simply wants to give up, why don’t they do so. There is absolutely no reason to take down such a bastion of women’s higher learning. I am frankly surprised this issue is not making more of a mainstream splash in the national media. I have heard no mention of it on CNBC which is first in business, worldwide. I just don’t get it but I continue to monitor.

  • Pamela Auble


    That is an excellent question, one that thousands of people have been asking since March 3rd.

    Why did the Board spread misinformation for years? Instead of notifying stakeholders that the financial outlook appeared to trend downward, Jo Ellen Parker publicly declared that Sweet Briar was poised to “flourish” in the years ahead. $25 million in debt includes two bonds that aren’t due until 2036. The spend for those is $2 million a year. The $29 million in deferment? More inflated numbers: $4.6 million in deferred maintenance over the next ten years ($1 million has already been completed); the remainder for modernization, cyclical maintenance, and miscellaneous expenses…also over ten years.

    Why didn’t they fill key positions? If you have a problem with declining admissions, you fill the vacant-for-two-years Dean of Enrollment position. If your fundraising strategy is faltering, you hire a Director of Development.

    Why is President Jones (who, by the way, was never voted-in as interim president) refusing to release meeting minutes and financial statements beginning July 1, 2014? Jones decries the “vitriolic” conspiracy theories; they abound because he isn’t sharing any information.

    Why are the president and Board fighting three lawsuits instead of walking away? If they are so sure that Sweet Briar can’t be saved, let #SaveSweetBriar take over. Does someone stand to make a large sum of money if the school closes? Are they worried about being sued for negligence?

    How are the board members able to stick to their talking points when all of their reasons for closure have been disproved? And if they are covered by an NDA, why are they talking to the media, but not to #SaveSweetBriar stakeholders?

  • CvilleJane

    Assets up; debt down. What is the REAL reason for closing? Why the brick wall from so many? #SaveSweetBriar has pledged donations, faculty wants to stay and alumnae are MORE than willing to help recruit students.

  • Kathleen Bell

    Still waiting to hear on OAG’s plan to reduce the silly scope and cost of the FOI request…

  • Isannah Kendrick

    How do you profit from a non-profit? You “administer” to it–say, for example, use the last of the money to set up a scholarship fund, and pay yourself a handsome salary to hand out a few scholarships a year to continue the trust’s mission of “educating women” while selling assets cheaply to friends and, possibly, dummy corporations that members of the board don’t (technically) have interests in.

  • Elizabeth Dietrich

    Actually, there are ways to profit from sales of the assets. If the land is sold privately to a friend or a dummy corporation owned by a friend/relation at rock bottom bankruptcy sale pricing then someone on the inside makes a bundle. Or maybe the land is purchased by a friend and then sold to the insider still at rock bottom price. Think it can’t happen? Not so long ago in the same area, land speculators defaulted on large property intended for development and it was sold for about $100,000. Or there is an example closer to home, SBC acquired the house from Tusculum Plantation, where Indiana Fletcher Williams (founder of SBC) was born and had it deconstructed and moved to SBC where it was intended to be re-erected and used as a home for the Tusculum Institute. Donations were solicited for this purpose, but about a year ago it was sold to friends of Paul Rice, head of the SBC BoD for $100,000 less than its value without any notification to those who had donated to its re-erection. See suit by Amherst County against SBC. Then too, the President of the College says any money remaining after school is disemboweled will be used to set up a scholarship fund and he will run that-so he gets to stay on the payroll no doubt with a generous travel allowance included.

  • Debby Willis

    Outstanding article–possibly my favorite since this whole Sweet Briar Saga started. The part about the AG’s office wanting almost 20k is ridiculous considering the woman who asked for the request needed only a handful of emails/ docs…certainly did not need everyone in the whole office on this. I really hope AG Herring steps up to his campaign which ran on a platform of women.

  • Kathleen Bell

    Interestingly, when asked point blank by SBC faculty, in a recorded meeting, if he consulted the OAG before the close vote, SBC president Jimmy Jones denied consulting with the OAG.

  • virginia greene

    Here is a possible answer to Pamela Auble’s “Why”, recently suggested by Everett Stern, a whistleblower and the owner of a private investigating agency (check out his website and that of his agency–it has the unusual name of Practical Rabbit).

    Scenario: The college is allowed to close and the assets can be sold and redistributed to other charitable causes.

    The acreage is sold to one or more private Information Technology companies. Board Chairman Rice owns stock in several IT companies and in fact owns several companies himself. He also has connections with USG agencies that use or require lots of IT usage (“wireless intel and mission critical operations”).

    The USG contracts with various of these companies to build a sort of IT Farm on the former SBC property. A whole lot of money would end up changing hands. The developers get rich, the IT companies get rich, people who own IT companies or IT stock get rich. Out in the country like that, not many people will complain about the antennae and the drone launchers and other gadgets.
    Check it out on this site: tacticalrabbit.com/intel-sweet-briar-att0rney-general/.

  • Margaret Fisher

    FOIA requests are supposed to incur 10 cents/ page charge to cover the cost of labor, as I understand it. The Attorney General continues his relentless pursuit of. . . Nothing, apparently. He has calculated incorrectly that a women’s liberal arts college and its students and alumnae cannot impede his political ambitions. He is further guilty of extreme dereliction of duty and participates inall these errant steps at peril of his political life. Cynicism in its purest form.

  • Katherine Barrett Baker

    Thank you NPQ. Why indeed. Why? Quoted these wise words from ‘Day 1’ and am quoting these same words again: “Land is the only thing that matters because it is the only thing that lasts.” – Margaret Mitchell – GWTW #SAVESWEETBRIAR. We just hit $14MM and our 501(c)-3 just now came in! Holla, Holla!

  • Katherine Barrett Baker

    Thank you Scott Dixon. None of this secret and sudden closure vote makes any sense to any of the 12,000 Alumnae who were neither told nor asked about the closing. I have been posting on CNBC and FOX Business News for 3 months. Nada. Also, all Virginia donors to non-profit corporations and charities beware! The Hon. Mark R. Herring initially gave the Amherst County Commonwealth’s Attorney, Ellen Bowyer, his “blessing”, then 3 weeks ago flip flopped with a 10 page Amicus Brief saying SBI is a ‘private’ institution and the BOD and President can do as they please. Now, the AG is sitting on the gate acting as a mediator because he realized he had stepped into a hornet’s next of mad alumnae. Basically, SBI, among other donations and oddities, took a $1MM donation on February 16th, and 15 days later announced the closure of the college. Sorry donor, you can’t have your money back and we can do whatever we want with your hard earned life time charitable gift. You, VA donor, have NO rights and NO say as to your treatment as a ‘stakeholder.’ Beyond belief at this point. Probably a land grab. Can’t imagine why the BOD and purported Interim President won’t step down. As Judge Updike stated: “It just ain’t right.”

  • Yulita R.

    They know some people with very deep pockets who want that land.

  • Virginia greene

    I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that Jones and Rice met with the AG a few days just before the announcement of the closing. Still looking for the reference but I know it’s out there.

  • R. Scott Dixon, CPA

    I am 100% supportive. From my (very) old copy of The Official Preppy Handbook, ” 1st edition, 1980, edited by Lisa Birnbach (I can’t believe I still have a copy), Sweet Briar College is in the Top 10 “institutions of higher Prep learning:”

    “Sweet Briar College. Sweet Briar, VA 24595. Women’s school, founded 1901. Enrollment: 700, 50% private school graduates. Origin of the stockings-under-pressed-jeans look. Very pretty girls, all of whom aspire to speak French so that they may spend junior year in Gay Paree. SAT’s: V510, M520.”


  • John Stewart

    A letter from an asked–to-resign board member in 2014 with multiple years on the board indicates there are + / – 2000 acres of Sweet Briar propertywhich could be legally leasable (this board member also withdrew the + / – $5 million his family had planned to leave to Sweet Briar).

  • John Stewart

    Suggested reading: Jimmy Jones seems to create controversy. At Trinity College he was reviled because he attempted to shut down the fraternities and sororities by telling them they could only exist if they became co-ed.