Virginia court hears appeal of Sweet Briar College closing
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Opponents of the planned closure of Sweet Briar College made a desperate plea Thursday to the Supreme Court of Virginia to temporarily block its shuttering in hopes of saving the 114-year-old women’s institution.
But an attorney for the school argued for an orderly closure rather than a “crash and burn” effort to rescue the school.
The court did not immediately rule, but it’s not expected to take the usual weeks or months before issuing a finding.
Sweet Briar leaders announced in early March the school must close by the end of August because of what they called insurmountable financial challenges including debt and declining enrollment. About 530 women attended Sweet Briar last academic year.
The stunning announcement provoked a passionate effort by alumnae, students, faculty and local officials to keep open the historic 3,250-acre campus in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Much of that coalition was on hand Thursday before the hearing, as dozens of Sweet Briar supporters gathered outside the Supreme Court building hours before arguments began. In a misty rain, many wore the school’s pink and green colors.
“We wouldn’t have missed this day for anything,” said Nalini Mani, a 1993 Sweet Briar graduate who lives in Washington, D.C.
The case boils down to this: Can the president and trustees unilaterally close the school as a corporation, or must they go to a court to break the trust under which the school was created? The trust calls for Sweet Briar’s continuation into perpetuity.
“We need immediate action if we are going to save this college,” said attorney William Hurd, arguing for the temporary injunction. Some students have already made plans to transfer to other colleges and some professors have already secured other jobs.
Hurd assured the justices, “This is not a college that is doomed.”
Hurd also questioned Fowler’s “crash and burn” assertion, saying Sweet Briar is a financially viable.
“The problem is, they haven’t run it right,” Hurd said of the college administrators and governing board.
Justices seemed to aim more pointed questions at Sweet Briar’s attorney, Calvin Fowler Jr.
President James Jones Jr., who attended the hearing, declined to comment afterward. The college issued a one-sentence statement saying it “looks forward to receiving the ruling.”
The arguments came in the appeal of a Circuit Court ruling that refused to stop the scheduled closure, but did limit the school’s spending for six months.
If closure opponents win the temporary injunction, they hope to return to court and examine the school’s finances.
The lawsuit, one of several aimed at blocking the college from closing, was brought by Amherst County Attorney Ellen Bowyer. She has argued that the college is a trust based on the will of its founder.
In 1901, Indiana Fletcher Williams created the school as a “perpetual memorial” to her daughter, Daisy.
Besides the injunction, Bowyer wants the Supreme Court or the lower court to appoint a fiduciary, or independent agent, to oversee the college until all legal matters are settled.
The case has been watched closely by legal scholars because of its national implications involving trusts and charitable giving.
Nancy A. McLaughlin has followed the case from the University of Utah College of Law in Salt Lake City because the Virginia justices will be interpreting portions of the Uniform Trust Code, a model law embraced by 30 states, including Virginia.
“People will be reluctant to donate property if they think the charitable corporation to which they donate can use the property for a purpose other than what they wanted,” she said in an interview.
If Sweet Briar officials had to get a court’s approval to close, they would have to explain “to the satisfaction of the court that it has become impossible or impractical to continue to use the property for the purpose for which Ms. Williams gave it,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin stressed she has no position on the case but is interested in the process.
“Whether it has truly become impossible or impractical to run Sweet Briar is an issue for the court to resolve, in my opinion,” she said.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.