Virginia’s Sweet Briar College said last week that it’s closing in just a few months, shocking the academic community and raising questions about exactly how the 114-year-old all-women’s college will be dissolved.
Speculation likely abounds over how the nearly $US100 million endowment will be spent, and what will become of the sprawling 3,250 acre campus.
Adding a new layer of uncertainty to those questions is the existence of the founding benefactor’s last will and testament. Upon her death in 1900, Indiana Fletcher Williams bequeathed her land to the formation of the Sweet Briar Institute, known today as Sweet Briar College.
Her will stipulates that the donation of the land was to go solely to the formation of an all-female school.
It reads, “No part of the said Sweet Briar Plantation and the two tracts of land adjoining … shall at any time be sold or alienated by the corporation, but it shall have the power to lease or hire out such portions thereof as may not be directly needed for the occupation of the school and its surrounding grounds.”
The land is “…a restricted gift, it’s a restricted charitable trust and one of the restrictions says that the land can never be sold,”
Reid Weisbord, Vice Dean and Professor of Law at Rutgers University, who specialises in trust and estates law, told Business Insider.
Ultimately, a judge will have to decide whether the will can be modified now that the school is closing. The most likely outcome would be the application of legal doctrine known as cy-près, which means the judge would amend the will so it complied with Williams’ intentions as much as possible.
Weisbord explained, “The word cy-près is French for as near as possible, and so it would be used for a charitable purpose as near as possible to the particular charitable purpose elected by the donor which was for the education of women.”
In this case, the land would probably not be sold, but instead transferred over to another charitable organisation — ideally, one that educated women or girls.
One outcome Weisbord was almost certain would not occur was that the Sweet Briar’s administration would be able to sell its land to pay off debts and other operating costs of the college. “What they most likely cannot do under the law is simply take the land and sell it and use that money to pay off debts of the university,” Weisbord said.
He added, “They certainly can’t sell it without court approval and I think they are highly, highly, highly unlikely to obtain court approval because of the restriction.”
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