In her first major remarks to the Sweet Briar College community since last spring’s legal fight, Amherst County Attorney Ellen Bowyer shared insight into the legal case she made against the closure of the college, in a speech to the Honors Colloquia at the school on Wednesday.
Bowyer also weighed in on an ongoing debate in the college community over policies of the school’s board of trustees, calling for board meetings to be opened to the public for the most part, and suggesting that the board should continue to value representation of various constituencies on the board.
Above all, she stressed the importance of the founder’s will in helping to safeguard the college from closure.
“The person we really have to thank for the saving of Sweet Briar College is Indiana Fletcher Williams,” she said.
“One hundred and fifteen years ago, she hired a really good lawyer out of New York and she told that really good lawyer what she wanted to do with her money and her property and he wrote her a really good will, a really good strong will. The most important issue throughout the whole fight was that question of the intent … It was the founder’s intent that allowed us to reach a good settlement in the matter.”
Bowyer also highlighted a couple of perhaps lesser-known key moments during the fight: a vote by the college’s faculty of no confidence in the then-board and president of the college, and friend of the court briefs filed by three prominent Virginia law professors.
She stressed that because the case was settled through a negotiated settlement with prior college leaders, no official legal precedent was set by the legal proceedings last spring and the arguments put forward. Bowyer recommended the school’s board pass a legal resolution officially declaring the school trust governed by the will and volunteered to help draft that resolution.
Bowyer gave her talk in the school’s 1948 auditorium, which is set up to seat 75 or so people, and was packed, with many people standing or sitting on the sides of the space and some people peering in from the entryway. They gave her a standing ovation.
Many people in the audience, including faculty members and students had questions for Bowyer. The first came from psychology professor Dan Gottlieb, who asked Bowyer how she thought representation of various constituencies on the board should be accomplished.
“I don’t know how to accomplish it but I think that for this college, it’s essential that you have balanced representation,” she said, pointing to the way that the plaintiffs in the various legal challenges worked together in the legal fight over the future of the college. “We’ve got to have that common united front to get this college down the road. How you do it, I’m not sure.”
Alumnae and allies of Sweet Briar College won a new beginning for the school with a mixture of grit, determination and faith.
During a town hall meeting in February, Sweet Briar Board of Trustees Chairwoman Teresa Pike Tomlinson suggested board members are weighing what it means to “represent” a stakeholder group, and whether it’s useful to have board members that might represent different groups, such as faculty or staff, and where there may be conflicts of interest related to that representation.
The issue dates back, in part, to the settlement agreement, which called for the college to remain open under new leaders. Representatives of the plaintiffs in each of the three legal challenges took part in the negotiations leading to the settlement agreement and thus got to nominate the first new members of the board of trustees. That meant for example, the faculty wound up with a representative on the board: music professor Marcia Thom-Kaley, who was present at Wednesday’s talk by Bowyer.
“I’m one voice and one opinion and I happen to agree with her,” Thom-Kaley said, of Bowyer’s points about representation and opening up meetings. “I believe strongly that every constituency should be represented on this board, and I’ve made no secret about that.”
She praised the dialog among board members and said the board is working to ensure communication with Sweet Briar Community as a whole. The board, she said, is in the process of revising its bylaws and that there has been energetic discussion about these topics at pretty much every meeting.
“I will say this is a board that wants to get it right,” she said. She hopes there will be there will be some resolution on these issues by the April board meeting, but doesn’t know for sure.