Sweet Briar backers urge Virginia high court to keep women's college open

Reuters News
Posted: Jun 04, 2015 3:22 PM

By Gary Robertson

RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) - Attorneys for all-women Sweet Briar College asked the Virginia Supreme Court on Thursday to bar the closing of the embattled college and to appoint a trustee to run the 114-year-old school.

With alumnae filling the courtroom and overflow rooms, attorney William Hurd urged justices to issue a temporary order quickly since faculty and students were rapidly leaving. A delay might seal the school's fate even if a ruling was favorable, he said.

"We're asking you for a chance to save Sweet Briar College. This is not a college doomed to failure," Hurd told the seven justices. They did not indicate when they might decide.

School officials 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 campus in southwest Virginia will remain open until Aug. 25 to allow an orderly closing and to let students finish courses.

College officials have said the student body dwindled to 532 this year, down from a high of 647 in 2008.

"You're being asked for an orderly wind-down or a crash and burn," said Wooding Fowler, an attorney representing the Sweet Briar administration.

Supporters of the school are asking the high court to overturn an April ruling by Amherst County Circuit Court Judge James Updike that allowed the school's board to shut it down.

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The legal question the court must decide is whether Sweet Briar is a corporation or a trust that operates under the terms of a 1901 will.

Updike had ruled that the college was a non-stock corporation and the board had the power to close it.

But Sweet Briar supporters say it is both a trust and a corporation under the 1901 will of Indiana Fletcher Williams. She gave the school's organizers her former Civil War-era plantation and directed them to operate "in perpetuity" as a college for young women.

(Editing by Ian Simpson and Peter Cooney)