Sweet Briar College, a women’s liberal arts college located in Virginia, is closing at the end of this semester. Sen. Chap Petersen has sent a letter to AG Mark Herring, asking some pointed, but perfectly reasonable, questions. Mostly, they are about money. The college has an endowment of about $88,000,000. Donors were still giving after the college decided to close (but, apparently, before the public knew it). There are also students to consider, some of whom will be seniors next year. Where do they go? Which college will have its name on their diplomas?
Here’s Chap’s letter:
Dear Attorney General Herring:
I am writing at the request of alumnae of Sweet Briar College to obtain your opinion of state law as it pertains to the recently announced closing of the College.
As I understand, the College has a ninety four million dollar endowment and has been soliciting and collecting donations right up until a few weeks before the announced closing. I also understand that it owns a 3,200 acre campus with fixed assets, which is specially designated for the maintenance of a women’s college. Finally, I understand that the founder’s (and original land donor’s) intent is for the purposes of establishing a women’s college, and that it is an accredited institution operating a four-year program with approx. 525 full-time students.
With that factual predicate, I pose the following questions for your response:
1. What are the rights of the donors who made gifts to the institution in the past year, i.e. after the plans for closing had apparently been decided but not disclosed? Do they have a right to seek a refund if the school continues with its plan for closing?
2. What is the obligation of the school to its existing students, particularly those students who are within a year of achieving their degree?
3. What will happen to the property if it is no longer operating as a women’s college? Does it not revert to the donating party?
4. What is the role of the Board of Visitors in this process? Does the Board have a fiduciary duty to protect the interests of donors and students, as well as the mission of the College?
Thank you again for considering these questions and providing an answer which I can share with those interested parties.
As a member of the legislature, Chap is entitled to ask for the AG’s opinion, so Mark’s office is certain to reply. But, Chap didn’t ask (nor should he have), why the college is closing, nor if a women-only college fits our modern notions of equality. Sweet Briar is a private school, not a state school. The legislature will have little to no role in the administration of Sweet Briar’s assets. Chap’s questions are wise ones to ask, nonetheless, as they permit a persuasive authority to go on the record quickly, before those assets are liquidated and distributed.
The questions of why the school is closing, and the place of single-sex colleges in today’s Virginia, are intertwined. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch:
Few students are choosing to attend rural schools where options for internships and work experiences are limited, and even fewer want to attend a women’s college.
It’s true that women’s colleges are on the decline. But, alas for Sweet Briar, so has its own ranking among them. Other women’s schools, such as Mount Holyoke and Smith, continue to thrive (and continue to outrank Sweet Briar). As to the place of women’s colleges, Petula Dvorak makes a good case in an article in the Washington Post.
I went to a school that had previously been all male (Amherst). Mine was the first class to include women as freshman. I’m glad we did, but that doesn’t mean every single-gender college should go co-ed. With Dvorak’s thinking in mind, it seems a shame to be losing this one.