The battle to keep Sweet Briar College open is headed to the Supreme Court of Virginia amid a spirited campaign to reverse the decision to close the women’s college.
Justices are scheduled to hear an appeal Thursday of a failed bid to block the small private college from shuttering its picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains campus in August because of what President James F. Jones Jr. and Sweet Briar’s governing board call “insurmountable financial challenges.”
The stunning announcement in early March has given rise to three lawsuits, a media savvy campaign by alumnae to counter the college’s claim of dire finances, pledges of more than $12 million to keep the school open, and digs at Attorney General Mark R. Herring, a likely Democratic candidate for governor in two years.
Herring’s office has brought together principals in the dispute in hopes of reaching a mediated agreement, but he otherwise has stood on the sidelines despite the appeals of a coalition of lawmakers that say the state has an interest Sweet Briar’s future.
Herring’s office said in a statement that the attorney general “got the school and its stakeholders together to help them explore any possible solutions and arrive at the best possible outcome.”
So what are the prospects of reversing a college’s decision to close?
Rare but not unprecedented, according to Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges.
“You know, it’s pretty hard to kill a college,” Ekman said in an interview. “A small entrepreneurial college can, with a little bit of imagination, dream up new programs, target new constituents — do all sorts of things.”
Ekman cited as examples Wilson College in Pennsylvania, which survived a scheduled closing in 1979 largely through the innovations of the same kind of coalition of students, faculty and alumnae that comprise Sweet Briar’s resistance.
Ekman also listed Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia, a women’s college, and Ohio’s Antioch College as examples of schools that have used creative approaches to survive and thrive through tough times.
“There are a couple of instances of colleges that were on the mortuary’s table and have come back to life,” he said.
The best hope for a resurrected Sweet Briar seems to rest with the state’s Supreme Court. It will consider the refusal of a judge in Bedford County to block the school from closing. In a partial victory for anti-closing forces, Circuit Judge James Updike temporarily prohibited Sweet Briar from selling its assets. The college is appealing that decision.
Amherst County Attorney Ellen Bowyer brought the challenge that found its way to the Supreme Court. She wants to stop Sweet Briar’s board from taking further steps to close the college and the appointment of a fiduciary, or independent trustee, to operate the school until the case is settled.
The argument boils down to this: Sweet Briar’s board can’t unilaterally decide to close the school, but has to seek a court’s blessing to break the trust that created it.
In arguing for its continued existence, Bowyer wrote in her appeal that Sweet Briar has a 114-year legacy of “educating young women of Virginia and the nation.”
“The college has produced doctors, lawyers, ambassadors, engineers, journalists, educators, civic leaders, actors and countless more outstanding members of society,” Bowyer wrote. “The college also has an immeasurable impact on Amherst County and is inextricably intertwined in the fabric of that community.”
In announcing the planned closure of the 3,250-acre campus, the college cited a litany of reasons: declining enrollment, debt, deferred maintenance on a campus with 21 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places and an endowment, while sizeable, restricted in its use.
The credit-rating service Standard & Poor’s put the school on notice last November, lowering its rating from stable to negative. Analysts cited many of the same issues later noted by Sweet Briar’s governing board.
In her court filing, Bowyer cited the expert testimony of Steve Spitzer, a certified fraud examiner who conducted an analysis of the college’s finances for Saving Sweet Briar Inc., a nonprofit that is battling the college’s planned closing.
Spitzer examined Sweet Briar’s audited financial statements from June 2014. Asked in an interview if he agreed that the college’s financial challenges were insurmountable, he said, “No, I don’t see that. It was very surprising, very difficult to understand, that conclusion.”
Spitzer said the school’s $96 million endowment was excellent for an institution of about 530 students and that the book value of its land and buildings was $245 million.
On the Standard & Poor’s report, Spitzer interpreted it as stating, “OK, we’re concerned. You do need to change some things.”
In a statement, Sweet Briar said Spitzer’s analysis “is for a single point in time and that is mostly historical.”
“He fails to adequately consider the issues and trends the college was facing that negatively impacted its ability to continue,” the statement said.
In accepting the case, the Supreme Court cited “the special nature and heightened public interest in this matter.”
The court typically rules weeks or more after oral arguments, but observers expect a quicker response in this case.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap
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