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Sweet Briar alumnae fight back against administration’s decision to close college

The Saving Sweet Briar campaign is working toward a goal of 20 million dollars to help save their school. (Wikimedia Commons)
The Saving Sweet Briar campaign is working toward a goal of 20 million dollars to help save their school. (Wikimedia Commons)

114 years after Sweet Briar College opened its doors, the Board of Directors voted  to close the historic Virginia women’s college. Now, Sweet Briar’s alumnae and students are fighting back to keep their beloved school open.

The decision made by the Board and the College’s President James Jones to close the college came on Mar. 3, stating that the financial situation at the school would not be able to keep the doors open. According to a Washington Post article, the school’s 84 million dollar endowment and declining enrollment could not support the school.

According to Sweet Briar Alumna Elizabeth Zuckerman ’09, the decision came completely unexpected. It shocked students who considered the campus a second home. Alumna Bethany Melendy ’09 currently lives in Japan and was shocked to hear about her school’s closure through Facebook.

“I felt completely betrayed,” Melendy said in an email. “I understand [the Board’s] position, and their argument as to why they did what they did;  however, I still feel that what they did was completely unethical.”

According to Zuckerman, before ten o’clock on Mar. 4, alumnae started to plan how to fight back against the Board and president’s decision.

“[After] that initial rush of anger, we turned it into an actual movement,” Zuckerman said.

Twelve hours after the announcement, this movement became two groups: Saving Sweet Briar Inc., a formal entity handling legal matters, and the grassroots campaign of the same name, which consists of alumnae and supporters working to save their school.  Spokeswomen for the grassroots campaign and Sweet Briar alumnae, Brittany and Briana Deane ’08 said Saving Sweet Briar’s goal of raising 20 million dollars should help to keep the school open for the present.

Currently, Saving Sweet Briar has raised 3.3 million dollars.

However, according to the Washington Post, Jones has stated in order for the college to remain open they must raise 250 million dollars.

The Deanes do not believe this sum given by the president is an accurate figure.

“We believe the figure of 250 million dollars is fictional, one to make the goal of Saving Sweet Briar unattainable,” Briana Deane said.

Brittany Deane agreed, saying the group has a large support network committed to saving the school.

“Jimmy Jones has attempted to make the Save Sweet Briar movement sound like a ‘small’ group making a lot of noise,” she said. “We are not a small group. We are thousands … of people united in the goal to save a historic women’s college.”

In addition to gathering funds and support, Saving Sweet Briar released a statement on Mar. 6, announcing that Troutman Sanders LLP, a prominent law firm in Virginia, would be representing them.  This law firm sent a letter on Mar. 23 to to the college demanding the board of directors and Jones to resign from their positions.  The letter also stated that the decision to close the college violates Virginia law because they took donations for the school even though they were planning to close.

Melendy received an email toward the end of February which asked for one such donation.

“You can imagine my shock when just a couple weeks later, the announcement came that they were going to try and close my beloved ‘Pink Bubble,'” Melendy said.

Alumnae have also found ways outside of the Saving Sweet Briar campaign to show their support for keeping the school open.

Melendy started a networking group, SBC Alumnae for SBC Faculty and Staff.  This group helps the faculty and staff of Sweet Briar with their needs, such as finding new job openings or helping update cover letters and resumes.

“[The faculty] are part of our Sweet Briar family,” Melendy said.  We care deeply for them and want to help them as much as we can.”

Support for Sweet Briar has come from other colleges as well.  According to Zuckerman, Wilson College alumnae have shown support for the Sweet Briar alumnae as Wilson experienced a similar situation in 1979.  Wilson remained open after the students worked against the administration’s decision to close, though the college became co-ed during the 2013-2014 school year.

“The circumstances are remarkably similar,” Zuckerman said. “The Wilson women have been through this already, so they know not only emotionally what we’re going through, but what to do to get the result we want.”

Mills College has also shown support for Sweet Briar; President Alecia DeCoudreaux sent out a campus-wide memorandum to announce the news of Sweet Briar’s closure.

“Our thoughts are with the students, staff, faculty and alumnae at Sweet Briar as they address this difficult reality and transition,” DeCoudreaux said in the memorandum.

Mills now provides information on its website for current students of Sweet Briar should they need to transfer.

Even though the closure of Sweet Briar still stands, the alumnae and their supporters are still hopeful that they can succeed in keeping the school open.

“I am extremely hopeful that we can save Sweet Briar,” Melendy said.  “I believe that we are very determined, and our greatest strength is our love of the school.”