Sweet Briar College Sued by County Attorney to Halt Closing

Sweet Briar College was sued by a county attorney seeking a court order removing its president and trustees and blocking the school near Lynchburg, Virginia, from closing.

The 114-year-old college for women, whose former students included Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s mother, announced March 4 that it will close after this academic year because its finances are deteriorating.

The closing violates the terms of the will of Indiana Fletcher Williams, the school’s founder, according to the lawsuit by Amherst County Attorney Ellen Bowyer.

Sweet Briar was founded by Williams’s gift and by “legislative act under the condition that the college continue in perpetuity,” Bowyer wrote in the state court complaint filed Monday. “The closure attempt is not only precipitous and unwarranted, it is also unlawful,” she said.

The college, which has about 700 students, broke state laws governing charities by diverting money solicited for operations to spending on closing the institution, according to the complaint. Sweet Briar has been asking for donations for operations even as it prepared to close by hiring lawyers and consultants months ago, Bowyer said.

James Jones, the college’s interim president, wrote a letter thanking a donor for a $1 million gift three weeks before announcing the decision to close, saying it would play an “important role in ensuring the strength of Sweet Briar,” according to the lawsuit. Bowyer said funds for restoring a historic home and a library were also misused.

Student Records

Bowyer also alleges that the college destroyed records including some related to prospective and accepted students and others from the development office related to the college’s financial status and giving.

“Our legal counsel has just received the complaint from the Amherst County Attorney and will respond appropriately after a chance for careful review and analysis,” Christy Jackson, a spokeswoman for Sweet Briar, said in an e-mailed statement.

The lawsuit also takes issue with the rationale for closing the school, saying that from 2010 to 2014 annual operating deficits were more than offset by investment gains in the endowment, which is currently valued at $85 million.

“The fight to save Sweet Briar has taken a major step forward,” Sarah Clement, an alumnus who helped organize a group to stop the closure, said in a statement. “We have been working with the county attorney to ensure that the Commonwealth’s case is presented in a compelling manner.”

The case is Virginia v. Sweet Briar, 15009373, Amherst County Circuit Court, Amherst, Virginia

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.