Virginia's all-women Sweet Briar College holding last commencement

Reuters News
Posted: May 16, 2015 6:03 AM

By Gary Robertson

RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) - Virginia's all-women Sweet Briar College holds its final commencement on Saturday, as school supporters battle to stop it from becoming the latest U.S. women-only school to shut down.

The 700-student school in southwest Virginia is scheduled to close because of financial woes amid a changing educational landscape that has made U.S. all-women schools a vanishing breed.

Besides students' families, thousands of alumnae and friends of the 114-year-old institution are expected to descend on the campus set among rolling hills to say farewell.

Commencement speaker Teresa Tomlinson, the mayor of Columbus, Georgia, and a 1987 graduate, said she would come out fighting for the school's survival.

"The college has never been more relevant. It has to continue,” Tomlinson said, adding that women’s colleges can mold women into leaders just as Sweet Briar had for her.

Interim President James Jones Jr. said on Friday he would skip the ceremony because of threats to disrupt it if he presided.

Jones and board chair Paul Rice announced the closure in March. They blamed it on dwindling enrollment, the decline in the appeal of single-sex institutions and a too-small endowment.

The Women’s College Coalition says there were 230 women’s colleges in 1960, but that number had shrunk by 2014 to 47 in the United States and Canada as mixed-sex colleges have boosted educational choices for women.

The 3,250-acre (1,315-hectare) campus will remain open until Aug. 25 to allow an orderly closing and to let students finish courses.

A group of students, alumnae and parents has sued to challenge the closing. An Amherst County Circuit Court judge issued a six-month order in April barring Sweet Briar from selling or disposing of assets, but refused to stop the closure.

Amherst County Attorney Ellen Bowyer has petitioned the Virginia Supreme Court to order that Sweet Briar stay open until legal issues are resolved.

Faculty members are suing for $42 million in compensatory damages for tenured faculty, with $2 million for non-tenured faculty.

A group of alumnae has pledged $12.4 million toward a $20 million goal to keep the college alive, a non-profit group said on its website.

A credit market report said the school's endowment on Aug. 31 was worth $91.2 million. Sweet Briar has said it needs a $250 million endowment to remain open.

(Additional reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Peter Cooney)