People walk across campus at Sweet Briar College Tuesday, March 3, 2015.

SWEET BRIAR — Alumnae upset that they had no say in the decision to close their alma mater are organizing in an effort to save Sweet Briar College.

More than 165 alumnae from around the country joined a conference call Wednesday to discuss legal strategies for obtaining an injunction to block the closure and to discover what entity actually owns the 3,250-acre campus.

One group has launched a web page in an effort to raise at least $20 million. Shortly before 8 p.m. Wednesday it had received 239 pledges for a total of $121,000 according to a running tally on the web page.

Another Facebook group asked that fundraising be halted temporarily until alumnae can form "a single voice" to approach the college's board of directors, said Samantha Britell, a 2011 graduate.

"We want to do this as professionally and just and fair as possible," she said.  "We're trying to stick by the Sweet Briar honor code, really."

That code is one reason alumnae are so upset by the board's sudden announcement that the college will close at the end of this academic year, she said.

"One of the traditions of Sweet Briar has always been to turn to your alumnae - turn to the women who came before you, ask them for help, ask them for guidance. That's a foundational aspect of what a Sweet Briar woman is - someone who's humble enough to ask for help," she said.

"I think the biggest shock for us as alumnae was we didn't see that, we weren't offered that," said Britell, a graduate student at Georgetown University.

The board said its decision was based on a yearlong study that found the steep tuition discounts necessary to recruit each new class was no longer sustainable.

Sweet Briar has $24.9 million in long-term debt and an endowment worth $84.8 million, said spokeswoman Christy Jackson. 

"We believe the decision of the board is final," she said.

Classes that were canceled after the announcement Tuesday afternoon resumed, and for students, the courting process by other schools began.

Virginia Commonwealth University announced it would extend its transfer application deadline and work individually with Sweet Briar students interested in completing their degrees at VCU.

Agnes Scott College, a private women's school in Atlanta, set up a special web page for Sweet Briar students.

"These students will be recruited by many great colleges. They're going to have a lot of choices where they'll be in school next year," said Robert Lambeth, president of the  Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia.

He said he was fielding calls after the announcement from recruiters asking "how to respectfully approach" students who were left emotionally distraught by the decision.

"I think everyone in higher ed is saddened and concerned" about the closing, and this is "not the time for second-guessing," he said.

"The decision was a tough one for the board," Lambeth said. "The board spent considerable time studying the issue, and I think probably correctly reached the conclusion that right now, barring a very large gift or a significant infusion of private money, there was really no other option."

Lambeth said he believes that only if decisive action had been taken many years ago could there have been any chance of reversing the situation.

He said the state's two other women's colleges, Hollins University and Mary Baldwin College, diversified their offerings with co-ed graduate programs to reach different markets and revenue streams.

Lambeth gave credit to Sweet Briar's board for "making a tough decision that will let them wind up in a very responsible manner, as opposed to what we've seen at some other colleges that ended on a very bad note." 

It's preferable for a college to close when it still has money and can "treat students and employees well" rather than "running out of money and not being able to meet payroll and pay the electric bill."

In its announcement, the board cited declining interest in single-sex education as a factor in its decision to shut down.

However, Hollins President Nancy Oliver Gray said that while she is "respectful of their decision-making process," she disagrees with that assessment.

"I do not believe it is all over for women's education," she said.

The strength of the nation's higher education system is its range of institutions, she said. "I firmly believe there is a very, very important role for our institutions."

She said her board made the decision to retire all debt and has built the endowment to a record $180 million.

"We are operating without debt," she said. "That's been an intentional strategy, given how competitive the higher education market is."

The conference call was hosted by Kimberley McGraw Euston of Atlanta, a 1992 graduate who said she was interviewed in January by Sweet Briar development officials about different directions the school could take. "They never gave any sense of urgency," she said of the discussions.

Sweet Briar also just completed a major library renovation, she added. "The college was wasting money."

The alumnae on the call talked about raising funds to keep the college alive. One said she had just received a fundraising solicitation and questioned why students were accepted for next year when the closure was already in the works.

Wasn't that a fraudulent action? she wondered.

In an interview, a father whose daughter was among those accepted for admission next year said he was struck by how normally college administrators carried on right up until the announcement.

Troy Hicks, a Hampton Roads resident, said his daughter was invited to campus in February for interviews for a scholarship that would have been in addition to a financial aid package she had been offered, which had brought the cost down to in-state public tuition rates.  

The administrators "were carrying on as if nothing was happening," he said. "I almost would call it a sneak attack. You didn't even know the tidal wave was coming."

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