April 24, 2015;Washington Post
Last Friday, in the latest suit to be filed in the Sweet Briar College situation, more than fifty Sweet Briar College faculty members filed an action requesting a temporary injunction against the college’s closing and, by extension, their being firing. The suit seeks $42 million in damages for tenured faculty and $2 million for non-tenured. This is the third lawsuit filed in an effort to stop the school’s closing; the other two were filed by Ellen Bowyer, the Amherst County attorney, and by a group of parents, students and alumnae.
The group argues that the college is not, as it claimed, in “severe financial crisis” sufficient to justify the closure. In fact, they say, in the past five years, net assets rose from $126 million to $135 million and the endowment grew from $85 million to $95 million. Additionally, debt dropped from $42 million to $25 million.
The faculty members claim they have standing because each has a contract letter and is subject to contractual agreements laid out in a manual, as is the college. The manual, they say, does not provide for a termination of contracts for financial exigency if no such exigency exists. In fact, the state of emergency must be “bona fide,” as established in the agreements.
Attorneys for the college have filed documents from consultants and board members questioning the school’s future unless its course is altered. They assert that consultants have told them that it was advisable to close.
The faculty suit claims that the timing of the announcement of the plan to close was irresponsible, in that any positions they may have applied for are already filled for the following academic year. Further, the timing of the announcement could, in fact, could result in periods of unemployment of up to a year, which could cause hard-to-explain gaps in the resumes of faculty, making re-employment yet more difficult. An additional complication is that many faculty members own houses on campus but not the land the houses sit on, and with everything in flux, they could be difficult to sell, and this creates unreasonable hardships.
This certainly sounds like the faculty is facing the threat of immediate harm, which presumably would give them judicial standing.—Ruth McCambridge