Sweet Briar Closing

Sweet Briar College students embrace shortly after finding out their college will be officially closing on Tuesday, March 3, 2015, in Amherst, Va.

Three faculty members said Wednesday that they are joining with alumnae to fight the closure of Sweet Briar College and assailed the administration and board of directors for a lack of transparency.

The professors also said college administrators sought to intimidate faculty by warning that severance packages could be eliminated or diminished if legal efforts to block the closure were to be launched.

Sweet Briar spokeswoman Christy Jackson responded that administrators “have made every attempt to be sensitive to what closing the college means for faculty and staff.” She said it is the college’s “sincere hope that we will be able to offer severance pay and outplacement support to full-time faculty and staff.”

The concerns expressed by the faculty members appear to be the result of a letter sent by the Faculty Executive Committee to the faculty that summarized a meeting with the college’s chief financial officer, she said.

The letter “asked for patience from the faculty as the administration worked through the details surrounding potential severance packages,” she said.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Attorney General Mark R. Herring said the office is looking at whether the state can play a role in the dispute.

“The outpouring of support by the Sweet Briar family in this difficult time has been remarkable,” spokesman Michael Kelly said. “Given that this is a private school, we are exploring what role, if any, our office may have as this process unfolds.”

Kelly declined to elaborate further. His comment came after state Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, sent a letter to Herring questioning the legality of the closing.

Petersen asked the attorney general for his opinion on the rights of donors who made gifts to the institution in the past year, after plans for closing had apparently been decided but not disclosed.

He also questioned what will happen to the 3,250-acre campus near Lynchburg, given that the property was donated for use as a women’s college.

The alumnae group fighting to keep Sweet Briar open released statements from faculty members that echoed what students and alumnae said after the board’s surprise announcement March 3. The board voted Feb. 28 to close the college at the end of the summer session on Aug. 25 because of “insurmountable financial challenges.”

“As members of the Sweet Briar faculty, we are standing today with the thousands of outraged alumnae on behalf of our students and demanding a reversal of the planned closure of Sweet Briar College,” professors Claudia Chang and John Ashbrook said in a statement released by Saving Sweet Briar, a not-for-profit organization.

The group has retained a legal team from Troutman Sanders in Richmond to examine options and said it expects to announce its strategy next week.

The decision to close without giving supporters the opportunity to help was “unconscionable,” Ashbrook said. “We knew the school was in trouble, but not to this degree.”

If the school’s supporters give up, he said he sees repercussions for traditional liberal arts schools across the country. “It isn’t just Sweet Briar’s fight,” Ashbrook said.

Sweet Briar assistant professor Marcia Thom-Kaley said the faculty was told that as of October, the auditors had signed off on their audit of the financial state of the college without raising any alarm bells.

“My deep disappointment is in the fact that I know financial problems of this magnitude don’t happen overnight,” Thom-Kaley said in a statement.


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