There’s a good chance that a bombshell lawsuit from a local Virginia county attorney on behalf of the state will be the lifeline the imploding Sweet Briar College needs.
“I believe that because this lawsuit has been brought by the Commonwealth attorney, Sweet Briar College has a much higher chance of staying open,” attorney Gretchen Van Ness told Business Insider.
“When a Commonwealth attorney appears, he or she has amazing credibility,” she added.
Van Ness has an interesting perspective on the lawsuit filed to halt the abrupt closure of Sweet Briar, an all-women’s college that has struggled with declining enrollment. She was a plaintiff in an eerily similar lawsuit in the 1970s.
That 1979 lawsuit was filed against a then-100-year-old all-women’s college whose board voted for it to close following declining enrollment and a dwindling endowment. However, the school’s alumnae and students sued and won after a judge ruled the board hadn’t done enough to try to save the school.
The school, Wilson College, is still open today.
Rather than coming from the state, the lawsuit against Wilson was brought by the “Save Wilson Committee” — a coalition of students, alumnae, and faculty.
While the SWC was initially sceptical of their chances to actually reverse the college’s decision, the lawsuit received support from the Pennsylvania attorney general, which Van Ness credits in part for helping to turn the tide in favour of the plaintiffs. Because the Sweet Briar lawsuit is already coming from the state, she said, it may be starting off on a stronger foot.
The lawsuit alleges Sweet Briar’s administration did not seriously attempt to keep the college open, either by fundraising, lowering tuition, or targeting wealthy and foreign students.
The lawsuit involving Wilson involved similar issues.
Van Ness, then 20 years old, was Wilson’s student body president and had been in office exactly three weeks when the college announced it was closing. She sees many similarities between Sweet Briar in the 2000s and Wilson in the 1970s — a board that that allegedly used funds raised for the college to shut down school and allegedly failed to change the way it managed its endowment.
Van Ness explained that Virginia, as the plaintiff, will face a high burden of proof in court to try and freeze the status quo of the school while the case is being decided on its merits. The plaintiff also faces a further burden to win a preliminary injunction or temporary restraining order, which would prevent Sweet Briar from closing while the case is pending.
These are “really high tests” for the plaintiffs to pass, which may be made easier by Bowyer’s role as county attorney, Van Ness aid.
“The burden of proof is still on the Commonwealth — the attorney has made allegations in the complaint that she is confident she can prove,” Van Ness said. “But she also has enormous credibility because of her role as a Commonwealth attorney.”
Despite the apparent strength of the state’s position, the case will likely go to trial rather than settle. Van Ness said that in her opinion, the Sweet Briar Leadership is “absolutely going to defend this.”
“From everything that I’ve been reading, they’re convinced they have done the right thing and the only possible thing,” she explained. “I would fully expect that they were expecting to be sued and have to fight this.”
Sweet Briar College released the following statement about the lawsuit on Tuesday:
Sweet Briar College has the utmost respect for the Office of the County Attorney of Amherst; however, the claims asserted in the County Attorney’s Complaint are contrary to well-established Virginia law as expressed by both the General Assembly and the Supreme Court of Virginia. Sweet Briar’s counsel engaged in open dialogue with the County Attorney prior to the lawsuit being filed, and although the matter is now in litigation, Sweet Briar will remain receptive to further communications with the County Attorney on all matters as the litigation progresses.
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