Interview with Sweet Briar Faculty

On March 3 the board of trustees of Sweet Briar College, a small liberal arts college for women in rural Virginia, made the shocking announcement that the school would close at the end of the academic year.  After nearly four months of intense fund-raising and legal maneuvering, however, the college was saved.  Under the terms of a settlement reached June 20, at 5 p.m. EDT today a new board and a new president will take control of Sweet Briar.  The college’s dedicated faculty and members of its AAUP chapter played a critical role in the fight to save the college.  I therefore asked members of the AAUP chapter to answer some questions about the terms of the settlement, their experiences over the past four months, prospects for Sweet Briar’s future, and the lessons of this fight for faculty elsewhere. 

First of all, let me congratulate you on the great victory won in preventing the closure of Sweet Briar. This was, it appears, a joint effort of alumnae, faculty, staff, local leaders and others in the community. Can you briefly summarize the terms of the agreement to save Sweet Briar?

The agreement was reached in a mediation process convened by the Virginia Attorney General’s Office, and was negotiated between five parties: the “college” (by which is meant the Board and President); the members of a faculty lawsuit represented by Michael Shepherd of the legal firm of White & Case; a group of students, alumnae and parents represented by the lawyer Elliott Schuchardt; the group called Saving Sweet Briar, represented by the law firm of Troutman Sanders; Ellen Bowyer, the County Attorney for Amherst County, Virginia, where Sweet Briar College is located. The Town of Amherst also joined the County Attorney’s suit. Six weeks of mediation was brought to a close the day when Ellen Bowyer’s case, supported by Saving Sweet Briar and Troutman Sanders, was to be heard in district court.

All of the parties with the exception of “the college” had as their primary goal keeping the college open. Although the faculty suit asked for severance and damages, both parties to the suit and faculty who were not parties (for one reason or another, all good) agreed that their main goal was to prevent the closure of the college.

The agreement keeps the college open. Saving Sweet Briar (SSB) had received $18.5 million in pledges or donations by the time of the settlement (the amount has now reached over $21 million), and the agreement requires that SSB deliver $12 million to the college by September 2nd, with three intermediate deadlines (they met the first deadline, $2.5 million by June 3, ahead of schedule with a $5 million dollar deposit). Once the first deposit is made, the Attorney General’s office goes to work easing restrictions on some of the restricted funds in the college endowment, up to $16 million, to be used to operate the college. On the college’s side, the agreement stipulated that 13 members of the Board would resign, and 18 new members be appointed from a list provided by SSB, and that the “Interim” President Jimmy Jones would leave (“terminated without cause”) and a new President chosen by SSB would be appointed. In the event, all members of the old Board resigned. The new Board will take office at 5:01 pm on July 2, when they will appoint Phillip Stone the new President.

For faculty and staff, the agreement is that all who were terminated and who leave the college this year will receive 6 months severance pay. The new board and president have indicated publicly that they will re-appoint faculty who choose to stay. The original agreement was that everyone would receive severance for the month of July and re-appointment would take place at the beginning of August, but the new administration may choose to re-appoint people in July. Those who take severance pay do not receive benefits (health insurance contributions or retirement contributions); those who are re-hired, of course, do. This arrangement holds for faculty and for staff – staff also will receive 6 months severance pay. People who were dismissed before June 30, 2016 will also receive the same severance agreement.

Faculty who are re-instated will be re-instated at the same rank, tenure status, and pay level that they held on the day the announcement to close the school was made. However, the mediation agreement does note that the incoming administration may re-negotiate all of those in the future. Reinstated faculty and staff who are terminated prior to June 30, 2016 will receive six months severance.
Beneficiaries of the agreement (all parties) also agreed to a non-disparagement clause. These are standard in mediation agreements, and the precise nature of disparagement unclear, but the clause left some faculty uncomfortable because of our commitment to free speech and critical analysis.

Before the settlement agreement was reached, all Sweet Briar faculty received letters informing them that their employment would be terminated as of June 30. What is the current status of those terminations? Will current faculty be allowed to return to the college and, if so, will they still be entitled to their former ranks, tenure rights, and salaries?

We noted above that the agreement specifies that re-instated faculty be restored to their same rank, tenure status, and salary level as of March 2, 2015. However, as noted, those statuses may be re-negotiated in the future by the incoming administration.

Incoming President Stone has announced publicly, more than once, that he plans to hire back all faculty who want to return.

We are in an odd situation at the moment. The Board’s resignation and President Jones’ departure do not take place until July 2 at 5:00. So at the moment we effectively have no Board, no President, and no senior members of the administration willing to make decisions. The new Board and President plan to meet right away on July 3rd, and we hope to hear news about reinstatement soon.

Quite a few faculty members have found alternate employment, often on a contingent and part-time basis, for next year and some have already relocated elsewhere. Will they be able to return to Sweet Briar after that employment ends?

The new Board and President have said that they will welcome back those who have taken employment elsewhere. They haven’t yet established a window of opportunity for such faculty or identified other conditions of reinstatement. But they certainly are referring to those who have taken one-year positions, or contingent and part-time positions, as well as those who have secured research positions for the year. Some, however, have agreed to moves that are not easily reversed – agreed to multi-year contracts that involve them in setting up new programs at other colleges, or to other multi-year positions to which they feel committed. Some have put their houses on the market, and sold them.

AAUP policy requires that faculty who lose employment and have two years or more of service be provided one year of severance pay. As I understand it, the settlement agreement approved by the court provides just six months of pay to faculty who will not return. Can you elaborate on this? What can Sweet Briar faculty expect financially?

The faculty lawsuit had asked originally that the one-year severance pay standard be honored for faculty, and that staff receive 6 months severance pay. (The lawsuit also requested damages for faculty.) Our lawyer, Michael Shepherd of White & Case (which provided their services pro bono), had advised us that if we resolved the suit in mediation – always preferable to drawn-out court battles – we should expect to negotiate. But the members of the lawsuit – and other faculty who were unable to join for one reason or another – were all agreed that our primary goal was to keep the college open. We also recognized that any agreement that would benefit the entire community – faculty and staff – would have to take place before June 30 when the faculty positions were all terminated. (The college’s designated closing date was not until August 25.) We also felt time to be of the essence to recruit back students who had transferred elsewhere, and perhaps even some incoming first-year students. We are jubilant that we achieved our primary goal, and are happy that those who have left for other positions (often lower paid and without the same tenure status) will receive severance pay to assist their move. Those who stay will receive their same salary (this year, at least).

We will want, however, to be sure that in the future, standard AAUP severance provisions are reinstated as college policy.

Before the crisis hit so unexpectedly in March, Sweet Briar already had an AAUP chapter. Can you tell us something about the AAUP at Sweet Briar and the role the chapter played in working with colleagues, alumni, and students to save the school? What plans for the Sweet Briar AAUP do you have for the future?

In the 1980s, perhaps early 1990s, Sweet Briar College had one of the highest faculty AAUP participation rates in the state of Virginia, certainly over 75%. By this past year, the AAUP roster at the college had dwindled to a historic low of between 10 and 15 percent of the total faculty (including full-time tenured, tenure track, and contingent faculty). We, the current members, need to think about how and why membership dwindled so, reverse the trend, and revitalize the chapter.

After the closure announcement, John Goulde (President of the SBC chapter) and Claudia Chang (long-standing member) attended the Virginia State Conference held at the University of Virginia in April 2015. By then Professor Goulde had already drafted and sent a letter to the national and state organizations of the AAUP discussing the sudden March 3 closure. Chang and Goulde were allowed to attend the Business Session (as non-voting members), and were later joined for the State meeting by three more faculty members from Sweet Briar. Professor Katherine Chavigny who had attended the first two court hearings of the complaint brought by Amherst County Attorney Ellen Bowyer v. Sweet Briar Institute informed the State Conference that Judge Updike’s ruling deeming Sweet Briar Institute to be a “non-stock holding corporation” but not a trust had potentially negative consequences for all private colleges in Virginia and could well be a concern for private colleges in some other states as well. (The Virginia Supreme Court ruled narrowly but in favor of the parties trying to keep the college open that Sweet Briar College could be both a corporation and a trust. The legal status of private colleges in Virginia has not been definitively settled.) The State Conference thereupon resolved to draft a letter in support of the faculty at Sweet Briar College to be sent directly to the AAUP Washington office.

The State Conference was thus instrumental in alerting the national office of the AAUP and Associate Secretary Kurland directly to our plight. We thank those officials in the Conference, esp. the President and President-Elect, (Ronald Thomas and Gerry Sherayko) and Kay Jordan (Secretary of the Virginia State Conference of the AAUP).

The AAUP red book policies concerning dismissal of tenured and tenure-faculty and institutions declaring financial exigency proved extremely significant in the faculty and staff’s case against the “college.” The Sweet Briar Faculty Personnel Manual, which was approved by Sweet Briar’s Board and was therefore contractual in nature, incorporated the 1940s guidelines and subsequent AAUP policies. The “college” stated in letters sent to faculty on April 1 that they were being terminated because of financial exigency. The suit argued that because the “college’” was not actually in a state of financial exigency, tenured, tenure-track, and renewable contract faculty were terminated wrongfully.

The Jessica Campbell case (students, parents, and some alumnae) was also heard in the Bedford County Circuit Court. Judge Updike ruled that (1) the students had sufficient standing to ask for a temporary injunction preventing the closing of the College and (2) the college was in ‘breach of contract’ regarding their good faith responsibilities to the Sweet Briar students slated to graduate after 2015.

Members of the Sweet Briar AAUP chapter have used this opportunity to review the many issues that the AAUP covers, and is active in promoting. We plan to recruit new members (and have begun doing so) reminding them of the importance of the AAUP in matters including not only guarantees of tenure and free speech (for which AAUP is widely known), but also for its recommendations concerning faculty involvement in college governance at every level, the pursuit of transparency in budgetary matters, as well as sharing decision-making with constituents, clear guidelines for appointment, promotion, and especially dismissal, and the importance of supporting fellow faculty at not only one’s own institution but in academia at large. We are pressing the Board to include a faculty member as a full member of the Board, and are recommending that one of the (other) Board members be someone with experience in the AAUP. We are planning recruitment activities for the fall, considering sponsoring talks and workshops on campus for faculty to educate them on faculty rights and responsibilities, and are sending members to the AAUP Summer Institute in Denver.

In the wake of the agreement there has been considerable talk about using this as an opportunity to “reinvent” Sweet Briar. What do you think about this? What role will the faculty play in addressing the daunting challenges facing the college? Will the new Sweet Briar have a system of shared governance and tenure protections consistent with AAUP standards?

Faculty recognize that there were problems on their own side in the stagnation of the college, allowing the Board to bypass them in seeking new initiatives. They also recognize a failure to press the Board and president to be more transparent and more inclusive. But these are only part of the challenge that face the college, and faculty are probably now more focused on recruiting back students – the numbers indicating they want to return are encouraging – and figuring out the curriculum for the coming year. Faculty also are looking forward to being more directly engaged in future admissions recruiting, in development efforts, and in pressing new initiatives for a dynamic, evolving liberal arts curriculum. But at this moment, most talk is about the next few months. We’ve been reviewing the many things that the college offers or has on hand, the demonstrated accomplishments of our alumnae (both those involved in SSB, and the wider group that came together in recent months), and the eloquent and energetic testimonials of our former students – at the same time as we think about how to operate as a small college with a medium endowment. We are excited about the reams of good ideas pouring in through social media, and we look forward to a year of intense strategic planning – probably the first time in decades that this college, at least, has looked forward to a strategic planning exercise!

The faculty as a whole – including faculty who may return after a period of absence – met last week (on June 25), in the limbo-period between the negotiated settlement (and the resignation of the past board) and the handing over of the keys to the incoming board and president. One of their first concerns (beyond a series of votes of thanks and resolutions for actions relating to those) was how governance would work in the future, both at the level of a faculty senate (or executive committee), and at the level of representation on the board. Faculty discussed how Virginia legal statute treats nonprofit, charitable groups that are incorporated as “non-stock corporations” and therefore fall under laws intended for corporate (non-stock) businesses. Many faculty concerns, however, remained for the immediate future (for July): how to access benefits in this period of uncertainty relating to being re-instated and when re-instatement might occur, for example; when and how staff would be put to work to contact students and how to arrange course offerings; through what governance mechanisms that were simultaneously ad hoc, and yet also accountable, the faculty would represent itself to the incoming board and president; and a general consensus that in the future a broader faculty representation should be developed, including especially non-tenure track faculty who had served a couple of years and expected on-going engagement with the college.

Following the faculty meeting, the AAUP chapter met, and invited any and every faculty member to join them. In that meeting we arranged to send a (newly joined) junior and senior member (and, afterwards, an associate-level member) to attend the AAUP Summer Institute in Denver this July. The Virginia state AAUP is going to support two of our members through paying their registration fees; we later approved sending a third member from our own bank account. Our chapter is subsidizing their travel expenses. We also decided to pay dues for a junior member of the faculty for a year, and to hold (as noted above) recruitment events in the fall. We are planning a reception; to acquire brochures and information; and to host lectures or workshops to present issues central to AAUP business.

The entire faculty (and staff) benefited from the AAUP’s involvement in Sweet Briar’s closing – the letters from President Jimmy Jones to the AAUP defending the college’s actions show how important they felt the AAUP inquiry was, and its public impact. We want to communicate the importance of an institution like the AAUP in a “right to work” state like Virginia, where faculty are not allowed to form a collective bargaining unit.

Some people have suggested that Sweet Briar’s situation is just one example of the eroding position of small liberal arts colleges everywhere, especially women’s colleges and those located in rural areas. What lessons can faculty members at such colleges learn from the events of the past few months at Sweet Briar? And will Sweet Briar survive in the long term?

We think it should survive. This crisis has shown all Sweet Briar faculty, students, and alumnae how invaluable women’s education has been to the thousands of Sweet Briar graduates who found a way to raise the funds, use legal action against the College, and to organize themselves in a collective manner. Women’s colleges in rural areas are viable, but require good management, transparent leadership, and responsive governing boards and administration, and perhaps a certain mature self-consciousness about the true value of women’s colleges. Our alumnae are a testimony to the fact that women’s colleges teach women to be resilient, and face the challenges of daunting crises, and to the significance of respecting women for their abilities and accomplishments. They are also testimony to the value of a liberal arts education, and to a liberal arts education at a small college. Coming out of a variety of majors, but often with highly specific careers, they showed themselves to have a quick grasp of both Sweet Briar’s situation, and the world within which they were going to save it. They may have been English majors, but they were able to organize, manage, and administrate; they may have been able to manage, and administrate, but they also saw the broader social currents in which they could appeal for the life of their college.

There is a lot of attention paid in the media today to the strains being put on public colleges and universities by stingy legislatures bound to anti-government and anti-intellectual agendas. For good reason, the academy has found itself fighting the politicization of education and its management by those seeking votes in state elections. But at the same time, we have learned at Sweet Briar how important it is to take note of the corporatization of small college governance. This is a term – corporatization – that can be put to use in many ways. Look out for the status of your Board under State laws! At Sweet Briar, we learned that our college could have been legally classified as a non-stock corporation – only the founder’s will stood in the way, and even that was challenged. As a non-stock corporation, the Board of Directors was answerable to no one but itself, and it appointed its own members. The idea of a college as a collective of faculty giving instruction, of students both following and shaping a curriculum, of alumnae and of donors willing to support the project of learning as undertaken at this college in this way was completely overridden. In such a situation, the Board is the college, the faculty are employees, and the students clients. Furthermore, as Boards are increasingly filled with people from the corporate world – people with money to donate, with what is thought to be business management acumen – they often take more seriously the advice of other people from that same world. Consultants who advise on education, for large sums of money, come to hold more weight that those actually engaged in its practice.

What can the AAUP and faculty elsewhere do to help the Sweet Briar faculty?

Sweet Briar may be saved for the year, but we do need to worry about three things. One is obviously money. And while we have been hearing (in the week after the settlement was announced) very positive response from students willing to return, we do need to recruit new students to our rigorous, challenging, and rewarding liberal arts curriculum: for that, we need a strong public discussion about the value of the liberal arts against the monetization of education and its outcomes. We need to capitalize, to use that term, on the attention we’re getting now. Third, we will need to be able to recruit strong new faculty. The sudden closure has undoubtedly scared off applications for positions that will certainly be opening – not all faculty who taught before March 3 this year will be returning. One thing we want to offer incoming faculty is a strong faculty support system, including the AAUP protections and expectations, and an opportunity to work with an administration that is open to faculty input on all decision-making levels.

Is there anything else that you think readers of this blog might want to know about the events at Sweet Briar and their implications for higher education more broadly?

Sweet Briar’s experiences this past spring should remain an example – and hopefully a watershed – spurring critical appraisal of governing boards for educational institutions and all non-profits. What are the parameters of their accountability to stakeholders? Is such accountability simply a sense of noblesse oblige, or are stakeholders directly informed, consulted, and given true input (and vote) into the decisions that govern their institutions? How can the moral, ethical, and scholarly responsibilities of academics be truly included in the monetary, market models that are often directly assigned to boards, and which board members expect to be guarded by secret negotiation, ownership of ideas by private consultants, and non-disclosure?

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