RICHMOND, Va. — Attorney General Mark Herring revealed late Saturday a plan that would keep Sweet Briar College open had been agreed upon by officials from the college, an attorney for Amherst County and the group fighting to keep the all-women’s private college from closing.
Earlier this year, the Sweet Briar College Board of Directors shocked students and alumni when it announced the school would close for good in August. The board and school president cited “insurmountable financial challenges” when they made the announcement.
Shortly after the news broke, a non-profit group, “Saving Sweet Briar Inc.,” hired a prominent law firm — Troutman Sanders — to mount a legal challenge to the college’s decision.
Herring said the agreement was reached after “hundreds of hours of mediation and discussion among all parties.”
The next step is for representatives from all sides to appear before a judge Monday to gain court approval of the settlement.
Attorney General Mark Herring released the following statement about the deal:
“I am pleased that the parties were able to reach a mediated resolution to the litigation involving Sweet Briar College. I convened this mediation because I truly believed it was the most promising venue for resolving this incredibly complex and difficult situation. We’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of hours on this matter over the last several months and everyone involved deserves credit for committing to the process and reaching a resolution. The agreed settlement certainly is better for all parties than continued litigation, and more importantly, Sweet Briar College will stay open.
“Looking back, all parties wanted to preserve the legacy of the College, one through orderly closure, and the other by keeping the College open. Both sides displayed the courage of Sweet Briar alumnae.
“To the directors of the College: I thank you for actively engaging in the mediation process and helping to look for solutions to resolve this matter. Having reviewed the record, including information provided to my office regarding your deliberations, I know the decision you made to close the College was difficult. It was a principled determination made after thorough consideration and consultation, and based in good faith on your best judgment of the interests of the College and all its many constituencies. In the intervening months, you and the College administration have acted honorably to protect the values and legacy of Sweet Briar College.
“To ‘Saving Sweet Briar,’ County Attorney Bowyer, faculty and staff, affected parents and students: you have energetically and effectively advocated for Sweet Briar College for an opportunity to adapt to the new realities of higher education. Due to a cooperative spirit by all parties, your efforts and those of college alumnae and others, Sweet Briar will continue. The passion, creativity and commitment shown by the Sweet Briar family proves it is a special place. Sweet Briar College has been, and now can continue to be, an important part of the fabric of higher education in the Commonwealth.
‘Saving Sweet Briar’ Reaction
The group that has been fighting to save the college released a statement lauding the attorney general’s announcement.
“Today’s settlement is an answer to the prayers of many and a powerful validation of the value of fighting for what you believe in,” said Sarah Clement, Chair of Saving Sweet Briar (Sweet Briar College, AB 1975; University of Virginia School of Law, JD 1984). “We first thank County Attorney Ellen Bowyer for her leadership in bringing the lawsuit to save Sweet Briar College. Additionally, the $21 million in pledges generated by the alumnae community was pivotal in demonstrating that the College’s funding gap could be closed. We are forever grateful to the thousands of alumnae who made this possible and call upon them to convert their pledges into donations quickly so we can deliver on the promise we have made.”
The group said it has garnered $12 million in pledged funds. Additionally, leaders said their next priority will be spearheading efforts to help a new leadership team develop an effective plan to rebuild and position the college for the future.
Group officials also said they expect the college’s new board to appoint Phillip Stone, the former Bridgewater College President and a prominent attorney, as Sweet Briar’s new president
Here are some key terms from the AG’s office on the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU):
1. Saving Sweet Briar would commit to deliver $12 million in donations for the ongoing operation of the College for the 2015-2016 year. The first $2.5 million would be delivered by July 2, 2015.
2. The Attorney General would consent to the release of restrictions on $16 million from the College’s endowment for the ongoing operation of the College.
3, Saving Sweet Briar and the Bowyer Plaintiffs believe that these funds would be sufficient to operate the College for the 2015-16 academic year.
Change in Leadership
4. Upon court approval of the Settlement Agreement, at least 13 members of the Board of Directors of the College would resign, and at least 18 new members would be elected to the College’s Board of Directors. These new directors would be elected by the current Board from a list of candidates nominated by the plaintiffs in the litigation involving the College pending before the Circuit Court for Amherst County. The new directors would constitute a majority and control the Board.
5. Seven business days after court approval of the Settlement Agreement, the current President of the College will resign, and it is anticipated that the new Board would appoint a new president and other officers for the College. It is anticipated that the new Board will appoint Phillip Stone, who has agreed to serve as the new president.
6. Seven business days after court approval of the Settlement Agreement, it is further anticipated that the new Board would act to continue academic operations of the College beyond August 25, 2015.
7. Saving Sweet Briar and the Bowyer Plaintiffs represent that they believe that the College has a sustainable future and that, other than by release of restrictions on the College’s existing endowment (except as set forth herein), funds will be available to operate and transform the College to reach that sustainable future.
Severance; Employment of Faculty and Staff
8. Faculty and staff of the College will be eligible to receive certain negotiated severance benefits and may be offered employment by the College following the aforementioned change in leadership.
Resolution of Litigation
9. The Settlement Agreement provides for the dismissal of litigation involving the College.