The 114-year-old women’s liberal arts college seemed to have a solid financial footing, with an endowment valued at nearly $US100 million. Sweet Briar administrators cited several enrollment trends that informed their decision to close, including a decline in students interested in single gender education, as well as fewer students interested in rural schools.
However, it may not be so simple. Alumni are raising millions of dollars to keep the school open, and there are questions as to what will happen to Sweet Briar’s campus — which had been designated as an all-women’s school based on the founding benefactor’s last will and testament.
Additionally, the college may have to may pay back much of its endowment, $US53 million of which is designated as permanently restricted funds.
Now, a Virginia state senator is raising questions about the legality of Sweet Briar’s closing. State Senator J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen — whose grandmother graduated from Sweet Briar College — sent the following letter to Attorney General Mark Herring last week:
Dear Attorney General Herring:
I am writing at the request of alumnae of Sweet Briar College to obtain your opinion of state law as it pertains to the recently announced closing of the College.
As I understand, the College has a ninety four million dollar endowment and has been soliciting and collecting donations right up until a few weeks before the announced closing. I also understand that it owns a 3,200 acre campus with fixed assets, which is specially designated for the maintenance of a women’s college. Finally, I understand that the founder’s (and original land donor’s) intent is for the purposes of establishing a women’s college, and that it is an accredited institution operating a four-year program with approx. 525 full-time students.
With that factual predicate, I pose the following questions for your response:
1. What are the rights of the donors who made gifts to the institution in the past year, i.e. after the plans for closing had apparently been decided but not disclosed? Do they have a right to seek a refund if the school continues with its plan for closing?
2. What is the obligation of the school to its existing students, particularly those students who are within a year of achieving their degree?
3. What will happen to the property if it is no longer operating as a women’s college? Does it not revert to the donating party?
4. What is the role of the Board of Visitors in this process? Does the Board have a fiduciary duty to protect the interests of donors and students, as well as the mission of the College?
Thank you again for considering these questions and providing an answer which I can share with those interested parties.
We have reached out to Sweet Briar College, State Senator Peterson, and Attorney General Herring and will update with any comment we receive.
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