AMHERST — With the court battle behind them Monday, the vixens of Sweet Briar College celebrated the never-give-in spirit that will keep their college open another year, if not in perpetuity.
Alumnae, faculty, staff and students gathered to picnic and make plans hours after Bedford County Circuit Judge James Updike approved the mediated settlement to three suits filed to stop the private women’s college’s board of directors from permanently closing Sweet Briar.
“It seemed like the odds were so long, but we prevailed,” said Laura Pharis, a Sweet Briar professor, as she prepared to play the fiddle with her old-time band Bramble & Rose.
Pharis, the chair of the studio arts department who has been on the faculty for 25 years, said the past three months were so stressful “I was afraid to exhale until this happened.”
At a table with pink and green balloons and a portrait of a vixen — the college’s mascot — Maren Leggett, a 1995 alumna, was collecting ideas for “Sweet Briar 2.0” to present to the new administration.
“The current administration said they considered everything, but that’s not the case,” she said.
The new leadership is expected to take over in seven days with Monday’s blessing from Updike, who drew cheers and a standing ovation when he told his crowded courtroom in Bedford that he is confident the college will “not merely endure” but will prevail.
Updike accepted three consent orders presented by Attorney General Mark R. Herring, whose office brokered a mediation effort that continued over nearly six weeks.
The orders, which take effect today, will allow the transfer of leadership to a new president and board of directors under a plan that requires the alumnae group Saving Sweet Briar Inc. to provide $12 million, with $2.5 million due by July 2.
Herring will release restrictions on $16 million from the college’s endowment, which he said will be a sufficient amount to operate the college for the next academic year.
The settlement agreement “is giving Sweet Briar a second chance,” Herring said.
“I believe this is what is needed to be done,” Updike said.
Phillip C. Stone Sr., who is to become Sweet Briar’s new president when the transfer of leadership is completed, said after the hearing that he is not signing on for a short-term role.
When Stone, a former president of Bridgewater College, heard the March 3 announcement that the private women’s college would close, he said he initially “wouldn’t have given much money on the chance” of reviving it.
But that view quickly changed when he saw the strength of alumnae efforts to save Sweet Briar, he said.
Now a practicing attorney, Stone said he had too much to do to take the reins of Sweet Briar if the settlement was just a temporary reprieve.
“We are not just in this for one year,” he said.
Stone declined to comment on his vision for Sweet Briar before his appointment takes effect or to say whether it should go co-ed, but he did say he is a firm believer that there is strength in the state’s patchwork of liberal arts colleges that includes single-sex education.
He said Sweet Briar can build on the alumnae success in pushing to keep the school open as “an object lesson” of what “strong women are made of” to recruit new students.
Sarah Clement, an attorney who is the chair of Saving Sweet Briar, said the group has “people on the ground” ready to begin making phone calls to recruit new students and reach out to those who had planned to transfer.
But the transfer of leadership, which will include a new board of directors, must take place first, she said. The previous board members have all resigned, she said.
“We need the keys to the college to get things done,” she said. The transfer of the $2.5 million will start the process.
“That’s the trigger,” she said.
Ashley Taylor, a Troutman Sanders attorney representing Saving Sweet Briar, said the group has a separate donation pool to refund the deposits for students who had signed on to transfer to other schools but want to remain at Sweet Briar.
Saving Sweet Briar joined with Amherst County Attorney Ellen Bowyer in challenging the board of director’s decision to close the school on Aug. 25 at the end of the summer session.
Bowyer’s complaint in part argued that trust law should apply to the college, which was established in 1901 to carry out the terms of the will of Indiana Fletcher Williams.
Updike ruled in April that as a corporation, the board had authority to make the decision to close without court oversight. On an expedited appeal by Bowyer, the Virginia Supreme Court disagreed, saying trust law can apply to a corporation and sending the case back to Updike.
Saturday’s mediated settlement came at the 11th hour before what was to be a hearing Monday on the merits of Bowyer’s request for a preliminary injunction blocking the closure.
“I was wrong,” Updike said of his earlier ruling.
He said he based his ruling on laws as they apply to corporations today rather than as they were written when Sweet Briar was established.
He then recalled William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech that mankind will not just endure but prevail as an analogy to Sweet Briar’s future.
Just before the Sweet Briar hearing, Updike issued a divorce decree for a Bedford couple who sat before him.
But for the Sweet Briar breakup, not all parties were present. Neither James F. Jones, who was named interim president last August, nor board Chairman Paul Rice attended the hearing.
Woody Fowler, the Williams Mullen attorney who represented the board and Jones, added “a late correction” to the consent orders that in effect would reinstate the cases should Saving Sweet Briar not be able to deliver the required funding.
In addition to Bowyer’s complaint, the other two suits settled by the agreement were brought by faculty members and a group of students, faculty and alumnae.
Michael Shepherd, the attorney representing faculty, said the settlement agreement for that suit includes a provision to pay six months severance to all faculty and staff affected by the college’s crisis, including those who were not part of the suit.