Since Sweet Briar College abruptly announced its impending closure earlier this month, alumnae have been fighting to keep the all-women’s college in rural Virginia open.
While saving a college might seem like a daunting task, The Roanoke Times recently pointed to another case that could “offer a legal road map for Sweet Briar alumnae.”
That case involves a then-100-year-old college whose board voted for it to close in 1979. Alumni 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.
Like Sweet Briar after it, Wilson, an all-women’s college at the time, attributed its decision to declining enrollment. At the time, the college only had 214 students — down from a peak of 722 in 1967. Like Sweet Briar, its endowment was dwindling but it was not broke. To be sure, though, things weren’t going well at Wilson.
“The trustees’ action was backed by a dismal record of decline,” Fred M. Hechinger wrote in 1979 in The New York Times. “The modest endowment had been invaded to close budget gaps for six years running.”
Like, Sweet Briar those who loved the college banded together to try to save it. A coalition of students, faculty, and alumni brought Wilson to court, alleging that the decision to close Wilson College was based on mismanagement by the school’s president and board of trustees.
Two days before what would have been Wilson College’s final graduation, local Virginia judge John Keller ruled that it could not close. Here’s what Keller wrote:
The fiduciary responsibility of the Board of Trustees required that Board to use those assets of the College to continue it as an institution of higher learning and as a teaching institutions until its charter purposes became impossible or impractical of fulfillment.
On February 17, 1979 and as of this date fulfillment of the charter purposes are neither impossible nor impractical though in jeopardy as a result of the improvident and precipitous decision of the Board of Trustees on February 17, 1979.
Neither on the facts or the law was the Board of Trustees justified in resolving on February 17, 1979 to close Wilson College as of June 30, 1979.
“He did not find any malfeasance among trustees and administration, only ineptness and inaction,” Hechinger wrote in The New York Times. Basically, the college only stopped operating because the board of trustees decided to shut down.
Hechinger wrote that the judge “made a point that may set academic-judicial precedent: A private college charted as a teaching institution cannot, without approval, shed its teaching function. If the time should ever come, as it may, that Wilson cannot make it, the judge said, let it come back and persuade me.”
Additionally, Keller writes that then-Wilson College President Margaret Waggoner’s actions “constituted a gross abuse of authority and discretion.” The judge ordered that Waggoner be permanently removed from the board of trustees — she resigned the presidency the following day.
As The Roanoke Times writes, “Faced with the ruling, the rest of the board promptly resigned, a new board took over and the college eventually righted itself. As a nod to its near-death experience, Wilson College adopted a new mascot: The phoenix, the mythical bird that rises again from its own ashes.”
Here’s how The Roanoke Times lays out how Sweet Briar could follow this path:
The Wilson case would seem to offer a legal road map for Sweet Briar alumnae.
Sweet Briar has been busily constructing new buildings and renovating old ones; as recently as November it opened an $US8.8 million expansion to the library. The board did not publicize its financial troubles, nor did it make a special fund-raising appeal. Indeed, it still has an $US84 million endowment (although most of that is tied up in restricted funds, but so was Wilson’s).
“The college is not bankrupt or near that fiscal disaster point. The assets far exceed the established or presently known potential liabilities.” That was Keller in 1979, describing Wilson. Instead, Sweet Briar’s board has said it simply sees a death spiral coming and wants to shut down before things get worse. But that seems to go against what Keller ruled: He acknowledged it might not be possible to save Wilson College, but the board simply hadn’t done enough to try.
It’s not clear yet what the Sweet Briar alumnae plan to do, though they hinted they’d be filing some kind of litigation. In a statement to The Roanoke Times, their lawyer said “We are keeping our cards close to the vest for now. Hope you will understand. We can send you a copy of our pleading when we file.”
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