Judge “Disappointed” Agreement on Sweet Briar Not Yet Reached

Print Share on LinkedIn More


June 16, 2015; News & Advance (Lynchburg, VA)

NPQ has been following the story of Sweet Briar College, the board of which voted to close the school as of August 26th on grounds that it was not financially viable. That decision was made in March, and since then, alumnae, faculty, students, and others have fought hard to see that decision reversed. A number of suits have been brought to enjoin the board against closing, but so far no legal halt has been imposed.

On Monday, June 22nd, the Sweet Briar case will be back in the Bedford circuit court after the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that Judge James Updike should take another look at the case. The action, brought by County Attorney Ellen Bowyer, is asking that an injunction be issued against the college to prevent its closing and that a special fiduciary be appointed to oversee the finances and management of the college. This would allow thorough discovery to be done regarding whether or not the closing is necessary at all.

In scheduling the hearing, Judge Updike denied all requests that would delay the session. “If I’ve got a pulse, I’m going to be in this courtroom on Monday,” he said.

Last week, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the law of trusts could in fact apply to corporations, and since Updike based his ruling in part on the fact that they could not, they overturned Updike’s ruling and sent the case back with a clear message that it should be taken up with all due speed. The court said the mistake contributed to Updike’s decision not to grant most of the preliminary injunctions Bowyer sought.

Updike says that his ruling was based not on that more general principle but on a reading of founder Indiana Fletcher Williams’s will, which led him to conclude trust law does not apply in this case, but in court, he commented that if the Supreme Court wants him to take a hard second look, he will do just that—and he will do it quickly to prevent any hijacking of an outcome by the factor of the short time frame the board has imposed.

In a revealing moment, Updike said he was disappointed that Sweet Briar and its stakeholders who are objecting to the closing had not managed to agree upon keeping the college open for another year.

“What I was hoping would happen would be that the parties would look at this, and by exploring and identifying and securing whatever funding was necessary for another year, promptly announce ‘we are going to stay open for another year,’ and during the course of that other year, use that year to develop long-term solutions,” he said.

“As far as hoping to hear an agreement, I haven’t heard anything except the ticking of the proverbial clock and time is running out. If something is not addressed, the issues that need to be addressed are going to be moot.”—Ruth McCambridge

  • Scott Dixon

    In a published letter dated March 30, 2015, Calvin Fowler, attorney for the board of directors, stated that an additional $10 -$12 million dollars would need to be raised to keep Sweet Briar open for the 2015-2016 school year and for each additional year thereafter. Saving Sweet Inc., according to their web site, has raised $18 million. Let’s assume those are all pledged amounts and not direct cash donations. The NPO would need only a 67% cash realization rate on those pledges to meet the $12 million shortfall as suggested by the board of directors’ own counsel. If these statements are true, Saving Sweet Briar will most likely be awarded one more year by Judge Updike. But there is still the nagging question: Why won’t the board of directors just take “yes” for an answer?

  • why are they being so stubborn? For Heaven’s sake, if they don’t want it, WE DO!! Is not 19 million raised indication enough for them that we (the Alumnae) are committed to seeing the school survive? This is just sheer pigheadedness! ~Betsy Burdge Murphy, proud graduate of Sweet Briar College, class of ’75 #savesweetbriar