The Supreme Court of Virginia temporarily blocked the planned closure of 114-year-old Sweet Briar College Tuesday, concluding that debate over the shuttering of the private school for women is “far from over.”
The decision sends the case back to a lower court, where leaders of the college are likely to be questioned over their March announcement to close the school by the end of summer. They cited insurmountable financial challenges and declining enrollment.
A local county attorney and a determined group of alumnae and faculty have battled the decision to close. They have questioned the dire predictions of President James F. Jones Jr. and the school's governing board.
College leaders have said Sweet Briar Institute, which runs the school, operates as a corporation and doesn't need a court blessing to close. Opponents of the closing argue that the institute is a trust and subject to court review.
In returning the case to the lower court, the justices wrote that the “legal issues are still evolving, and the factual record underpinning the parties' allegations and defenses has yet to be fully developed.”
The court added, “In short, the controversy of the college's scheduled closing is far from over, and all agree that the ultimate merits of the controversy are not, at least for today, squarely before this court.”
Amherst County Attorney Ellen Bowyer brought the challenge that found its way to the Supreme Court. Besides the injunction, she wanted the appointment of a fiduciary, or independent trustee, to operate the school until the case is settled.
That apparently will be left to the lower court to decide.
In announcing the planned closure of the 3,250-acre campus, the college cited a litany of reasons: Declining enrollment, debt, deferred maintenance on a campus with 21 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and an endowment that's sizeable but restricted in its use.
But faculty members, a spirited alumnae effort and others argued forcefully that the school's bleak financial outlook was overstated.
In 1901, Indiana Fletcher Williams left her entire estate, a former plantation, to establish Sweet Briar in memory of a daughter who died at age 16.
Sweet Briar is about 12 miles north of Lynchburg -- a two-hour drive west of Richmond and into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.