Sweet Briar College’s Fate And Fait Accompli Ethics


 UPDATE (6/15): I am officially nominating this post as the Most Typo-Riddled Ethics Alarms Article of 2015. At least I hope it is—alerted by a reader, I just found and fixed about 10, and I have no idea what happened. I suspect that I somehow pasted the next-to-last draft instead of the final. My proofreading is bad, but not THAT bad. I am embarrassed, and apologize to all: that kind of sloppiness is never excusable, but I especially regret it on a topic this important.


Sweet Briar College was officially scheduled for termination, date of execution later this summer, by a board that chose not to offer alumnae and other interested parties a fair opportunity to raise objections, propose solutions, or mount a rescue effort. Indeed it was almost an ambush.

Although the distinguished graduates of Virginia’s unique and venerable all-female college have mounted a spirited effort to reverse this dubious move, time is not on their side. Amherst County Attorney Ellen Bowyer, working with the passionate opposition to Sweet Briar’s closing, argued in court that this would violate the terms of the will upon which the college was founded, and that the college’s board has engaged in malfeasance or misfeasance, violating its fiduciary duties and misusing charitable funds. A circuit court refused Bowyer’s request for a temporary injunction that would at least delay the closing —Tick-Tick-Tick!—and the case was appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court. Those  justices concluded that the lower court, in denying the injunctive relief, erred by concluding that that the law of trusts do not apply to a corporation like the college.  It does. So now the case returns to the circuit court to reconsider the merits.


I find this infuriating and heart-breaking. As I’m certain the college’s treacherous board knew in March, legal challenges and court decisions take time, and the realities of the academic year halt for no man, or woman. It’s June now, and Sweet Briar has no 2015 entering class. Its sophomores and juniors are seeking, or have found, other schools as well. One of Sweet Briar’s problems—not an insuperable one to a board appropriately dedicated to is traditions and mission—was increasingly lagging enrollment. Whatever the solutions to that may be, skipping a year of entering freshman is not one of them. Faculty have to eat: presumably most, if not all of them, and the staff, are seeking employment elsewhere. The battle to save Sweet Briar, as noble and as important as it is, may have been lost from the start, simply because the clock, and the calendar, keeps moving.

This was, I fear, a fait accompli of the worst variety, an unjust, unfair, even illegal action that is successful because once set in motion, there is no way to stop it. Using the fait accompli strategy is intrinsically unethical, and the mark of an “ends justifies the means” orientation. It is based on the principle that an omelet, once made, cannot be unmade, because eggs can’t be put together again. In a situation where the ethical, fair, procedurally just approach is to debate and challenge a proposed policy action before it takes place, the fait accompli approach operates on the practical maxim that if you have no options, you have no problem. In essence, it says, “Yes, you may be right, but what are you going to do about it?”

In our history, this tactic has been used for good purposes and bad: Vice-President John Tyler extra-constitutionally declared that he was the new President, not just an acting President, when President William Henry Harrison died, and dared Congress to reverse his decision, thus setting a precedent that survives today. Even though the Supreme Court had decreed that President Jackson’s plans to relocate Indian tribes by force to make way for white settlements was illegal, Jackson went ahead with his plan anyway, knowing it could not be undone.

One President was killed by a fait accompli: When President Garfield was shot, Doctor Willard Bliss (his first name was also Doctor, meaning that he was Doctor Doctor Bliss…) simply took over Garfield’s care, declaring that it was the President’s wish, though it wasn’t. Once he had set up all the treatment procedures and began issuing orders, everyone assumed that removing him would do more harm than good. In fact, Bliss’s stubbornness and outdated practices regarding sterilization are generally believed to have been the reason Garfield didn’t recover.

This is also the argument being currently employed by President Obama and the supporters of Obamacare to pressure the Supreme Court in the King v. Burwell case. The Court just can’t declare the law’s current interpretation illegal, we are being told—it’s too late.  The danger is that policies adopted because their architects calculated that it would be too late to stop them– fait accompli-–become templates and justifications for future conduct, until the principles trampled by the fait accompli tactic aren’t just breached and wounded, but dead.

This is one of many reasons why Sweet Briar’s fate should concern us all.

[For previous posts about the Sweet Briar closing, see here, here, here, and here.]

25 thoughts on “Sweet Briar College’s Fate And Fait Accompli Ethics

  1. Too often it’s situational ethics, i.e. a fait accompli is good tactics and outsmarting the other side when your guy uses it, it’s a dirty trick when the other side uses it.

  2. Somewhere there is a contract that says members of sweet briar’s board, upon the school being closed, get some fat fat bonus checks built from donor money. We’ll call that “X”.

    Somewhere there is a mathematical model that says sweet briar’s funds were depleting very rapidly and that the available funds were nearing the number “X”.

  3. At least that District Court Judge in Texas was hip to this situation and issued that injunction at the request of the States suing over the Obama administration’s over reach on immigration. Hurray.

  4. Justice Delayed is Justice Denied.

    These days, delays of decades can be easily engineered. How many Federal cases take less than 5 years to resolve? Not many.

  5. Thank you for your continued coverage on the closure of Sweet Briar College and the Saving Sweet Briar movement.

    Fingers crossed that justice prevails and we can keep the college running for another 114 years.

  6. Yes indeed…but that does not mean we should not try to Save Sweet Briar. Every donor to every non profit should be angry if this board is allowed to get away with both murder and theft.

  7. You forget two things: many schools have closed for one to three years and successfully reopened, and no school has ever had alumnae and community support like SBC has.

  8. Thank you for continuing to cover this issue. I would like to point out that the circuit court DID provide a 60-day injunction on the issue of solicitation violations as the board continued to accept large donations despite planning the closure. What was in question with the Supreme Court of Virginia was whether or not Sweet Briar could be considered a trust as well as a corporation. They determined it could which strengthens the case to save Sweet Briar as Indiana Fletcher Williams states the land should continue to be a women’s college “in perpetuity.” SCOVA also extended that injunction.

    What you may not know, is that, as the faculty are finding other positions, they are working hard to insure classes are covered and as inexpensively as possible. Staff members who have found other positions may not be replaced for a time. The alumnae have raised $16.5 million to date and students are just as loyal to the school, many of whom see their transfer arrangements as “Plan B” if the school doesn’t remain open. It will be a lean rebuilding year, to be sure, but, with 2 perfect 99 scores from Princeton Review, this school should, can and will be saved.

  9. I think Sweet Briar can and will remain open. We alums and supporters will need to be generous and active in finding students to fill seats in the fall, but I think the world will be amazed at what we can achieve as soon as the light turns green. The campus looks beautiful, the buildings pristine. I was just there right before graduation. Some summer classes are in session right now. So many professors are ready to go, and so many Phd’s are looking for positions in a world that is using cheap Adjuncts for teaching. I also think staff positions will be filled. Many students will return if the school is open. And I believe we can find enough young women to come on over to make it work. Meanwhile….SBC 2.0 will be working toward long term sustainablitliy.

  10. Seems as though the scenario playing out in the battle to save Sweet Briar College is a microcosm of what is going on in this country. All parties claim to have “inherited” a mess. No transparency. No accountability. No responsibility. No explanations. No accessibility. No significant investigative reporting (the exception being The Roanoke Times). Saying the same thing over and over again hoping the general public will see it as the truth. Big egos. Unethical dishonesty. Paper shredding (let’s just say ‘alleged’ for kicks). Person at the top who testifies he doesn’t know (see Bedford County court transcripts). Intimidation tactics (see any Facebook “thread” from any of the many Sweet Briar students) and specifically the very recent, pitifully petty E-mail sent to a Professor about a small class project from the CFO). Stalling (see requests to our AG for FOIA, and the ensuing astounding costs). Mediation. Really, mediation? What is there to mediate? Going to close half the school, or have half the BOD resign? There is an old saying about winning a lawsuit. It is: “He who has the most money wins.” Well, the grassroots group Saving Sweet Briar sure has raised lots of money in very little time ($18MM in 90 days). Time (or lack thereof) was what the current BOD and Interim President may have been counting on, n’est-ce pas? The VA Supreme Court Justices were right. Time is the issue. They asked the lawyer representing SBI why SBI was in such a hurry to close the college. They received no good answer, because there IS NO good answer. Meanwhile, 12,000 Alumnae have mobilized, by ourselves with pieced together mailing lists, all across this country, to re-structure and raise money to save the school they chose to close without asking or telling us. And, all the while, where is our COB? Where is he? Why has he not joined us in our fight to save the non-profit school he is “charged with” as COB to run? Again, Nowhere to be heard from or seen. I have 1 word for our gone missing COB. “MIDWAY.” #SAVESWEETBRIAR

  11. I haven’t followed this story closely since I first read about it. I haven’t followed it because I guessed all I really needed to know was already there. The school has enough money in the endowment to stay open a few more years. The school could have cut off enrollments, and allowed the current students (or al least the sophomores and juniors) to graduate and be the last classed from Sweet Briar College. They could have allowed the faculty the time to find new jobs.

    Faculty are generally only hired in the Fall, and this closing announcement did not allow the faculty a chance to find new jobs. From what I read, the administration pretty much set up all the faculty for a full year of unemployment at best.

    Upper classmen generally cannot transfer all of their credits. Most colleges require them to take 60 credits or so from the degree-granting institution. This closing was done in such a way that many of their students will have to retake classes and spend another full year (or more) to graduate through no fault of their own.

    The board did nothing to minimize the damage to their students and their faculty. College closing are always heart wrenching, but this one was seemingly done in a way to cause the most injury to the most people. I’m not sure I really need to know more.

  12. Re: the comments from “Michael R.”: “College closing[s] are always heart wrenching, but this one was seemingly done in a way to cause the most injury to the most people.” How’s that for the simple, honest-to-God truth? Sometimes people have an amazing knack for cutting through the crap and writing a crystal-clear statement of the problem. He is to be commended for his thoughtful comments.

  13. Please go back and edit this piece to incorporate the comments and additional details (also, a few typos, misspellings and missing words). Sorry, I can’t help the editor coming out in me! Love this piece, though and I thank you, thank you, thank you for writing about our plight and for caring!

    • Yikes. Thank-you, I did. I’m a lousy proofreader, but some of those were inexplicable. I am horrified that I didn’t catch them sooner. I just posted this at the beginning:

      UPDATE (6/15): I am officially nominating this post as the Most Typo-Riddled Ethics Alarms Article of 2015. At least I hope it is—alerted by a reader, I just found and fixed about 10, and I have no idea what happened. I suspect that I somehow pasted the next-to-last draft instead of the final. My proofreading is bad, but not THAT bad. I am embarrassed, and apologize to all: that kind of sloppiness is never excusable, but I especially regret it on a topic this important.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.