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Sweet Briar reopens doors with renewed momentum

Final cash payments delivered, first-year class of 30 enrolled

<p>Saving Sweet Briar deliver on Sep 2 a final $3.643 million payment, exceeding the needed $12 million.</p>

Saving Sweet Briar deliver on Sep 2 a final $3.643 million payment, exceeding the needed $12 million.

Last March, when Sweet Briar College officials announced they would close the 114-year-old institution, a firestorm of angry protests erupted among Sweet Briar students, alumnae and professors. They rallied to form Saving Sweet Briar, Inc., arguing that the decision to close the school lacked merit.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring organized mediation between the school and Saving Sweet Briar, Inc. and, to the relief of the alumnae base, a settlement was reached July 20. If Saving Sweet Briar, Inc. could raise $12 million, Herring said he would free up a certain amount of restricted funds from the school’s endowment.

As of last week, close to a month and a half later, Saving Sweet Briar delivered the final amount of $3.64 million to the college, exceeding the $12 million threshold.

Decision to close

When Sweet Briar officials announced Mar. 3 that they would close the school, administrators said the decision came after repeated budget cuts and enrollment initiatives.

“We instituted significant cuts in the operating budget, deferred maintenance on facilities and drove initiatives to increase enrollment,” said Paul Rice, chair of the Sweet Briar Board of Directors. “Unfortunately, it is now clear that none of our strategies have provided, nor will they provide, the solutions Sweet Briar would require to continue to operate as a higher education institution,” Rice said.

The school was set to shut its doors Aug. 25, a year after the closure of Virginia Intermont College, which began as an all-women’s school and also faced flagging enrollment.

Mary Baldwin College, another all-female institution, responded by offering enrolled and admitted Sweet Briar students expedited transfers, and the University extended its transfer application deadline in consideration of the same group.

Saving Sweet Briar

Saving Sweet Briar, Inc., founded three days after the board announced the impending closure, issued a stern rebuttal to the claim that the school was in a dire financial situation and in need of closing, and sought financial and legal assistance in fighting the closure.

A group of analysts working on behalf of Sweet Briar College pointed to an endowment increase from $85 million in 2010 to $95 million in July 2014 as a sign that the school’s assets were in a solid position less than a year ago. Long-term debt went down from $42 million to $25 million, while net assets grew from $126 million to $134 million.

Christy Jackson, a spokesperson for the school at the time, responded by saying that the financial analysis was too optimistic about the future of the school.

“While we appreciate the efforts of our alumnae, this financial analysis is incomplete, asserts inaccurate information and makes unrealistic assumptions about current investment returns, alumnae giving and the trends in tuition revenue,” she said. “We have fewer and fewer enrolled students, paying less and less, and it is costing us more and more to educate them.”

Sweet Briar professors came together late March to oppose the plan, and Saving Sweet Briar called on the college’s president and board to resign, citing alleged legal violations. The group hired a fraud examiner March 26 to look through the school’s finances. Four days later Saving Sweet Briar filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Commonwealth to stop the closure.

New leadership

After more than two months of legal proceedings, Saving Sweet Briar announced June 20 that a settlement, which would allow the school to remain open and usher in new leadership, had been reached between the group, the attorney general and Amherst County Attorney Ellen Bowyer.

Phillip Stone, former president of Bridgewater College, took over July 3 for former Sweet Briar President James Jones. No students were enrolled in Sweet Briar — everyone, Stone said, had transferred out — there was no first-year class.

In the following months, however, 250 students had enrolled, 30 of whom are first years. Last year the college had 92 full-time faculty, and this year they will have 68, Stone said.

“A good number of faculty had taken positions elsewhere before I got here — 55 percent of the tenured faculty remained,” Stone said. “With the smaller enrollment it’s better for us that we do not have all the faculty here — we couldn’t afford them.”

Stone said he plans to reach out and recruit international students as a way to build the current level of enrollment, pitching Sweet Briar as a safe college with a robust intellectual program. He said he wants to capitalize on the role of Sweet Briar in the national spotlight.

“The story of the rescue of the college has gotten so much national press.” Stone said. “We certainly expect to be able to remind prospective students that the college alumnae have certainly demonstrated what women can do.”

The alumnae, Stone said, have taken the lead, not just saving the school but also in getting it ready to, once again, become a working, functional and successful institution of higher learning.

“The alumnae not only raised $12 million in just about 100 days prior to the opening of the college — they did things like coming in here three weeks ago as we were getting ready to open school and volunteered to paint, scrub, weed gardens, boil things,” Stone said.

Going forward

Last week Sweet Briar College held its 2015 opening convocation. Though the enrollment is small, the attendance was the largest it has ever been, Stone said. Upon taking the stage to speak, he received a standing ovation — a part of what Stone said was as an electric atmosphere.

For years, faculty members had been concerned with discussion of topics like enrollment, budget cuts and whether the school would survive until the next year. The mood has shifted, Stone said.

Because Saving Sweet Briar has helped the college exceed $12 million — by providing three payments of $5 million, $3.5 million and $3.643 million — both the newly raised money and restricted funds from the school’s endowment will be made of use to the institution, Michael Kelly, director of communications for the attorney general’s office, said.

“The role going forward for the attorney general’s office is that under the terms of the settlement agreement that came out of the mediation…the attorney general’s office will be freeing up a certain amount of restricted funds from the school’s endowment,” Kelly said.

Stone said he feels optimistic. With new resources and continued support — alumnae will serve as admissions officers for the coming year — he said Sweet Briar is ready to move forward.

“It just really feels like things are on the move,” Stone said. “We’re going to do some good things.”