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How the Strange Story of Sweet Briar College’s Founding Could End Up Saving the School

Could an obscure legal doctrine force Sweet Briar to change its plan?
May Day exercises at Sweet Briar College, 1905. Photograph by Harris & Ewing, via Library of Congress.

Sweet Briar College will see out its final graduating class on Saturday, though alumni groups will try to keep the school open. At the crux of both the college’s founding and its controversial plan to close is a single, peculiar historical document, the last will and testament of Indiana Fletcher Williams.

One hundred fifteen years ago, Indiana Williams died in her Amherst County, Virginia, plantation home. Through her will, she gave $2,000 to the local Episcopal church, bequeathed a painting of the head of Christ to an acquaintance in New York, and set aside 3,000 acres plus $800,000 to found the Sweet Briar Institute—“a school or seminary for the education of white girls and young women.”

The reclusive widow had led a genteel life, as a girl attending school at Georgetown Visitation, as a young lady gamboling about on a Grand Tour of Europe, as an adult flitting about the Manhattan social scene or passing summers on Sweet Briar, her Virginia estate. But in 1884 Williams suffered a defining personal tragedy when her only child, Daisy, a delicate 16-year-old with blonde hair that tumbled in long curls, died of a lung disease.

Daisy’s death turned the remainder of Williams’ life into a Southern Gothic daydream. For months she had her domestic staff deliver breakfast daily to Daisy’s grave and later trot Daisy’s pony to the site, with the girl’s riding skirt laid across the pommel. She would visit the cemetery herself in the afternoons, bringing the mail and reading it aloud to Daisy. For 16 years she preserved the main house exactly as it had been. In Daisy’s bedroom, Williams left clothes arranged neatly in the closet and kept fresh sheets on the bed. Then, one morning in 1900, she died on the floor at the foot of that bed. The new Sweet Briar Institute, she had written in her will, would serve as a “perpetual memorial” to her daughter.

The plans for the school were not the nostalgic whims of a grieving old woman. Williams proved herself a shrewd administrator during the Civil War when she took charge of the family plantation and its 115 slaves. Later, after her father, husband and siblings died, she ran their collective properties and invested smartly. (Of the bonds she left to Sweet Briar, some didn’t come to term until as recently as 2000.) This diligence carried over into the details of her will. She had the wording carefully vetted by the best attorneys in New York and Richmond to ensure its inviolability. Her land and money would henceforth serve the sole purpose of educating young white ladies, and an appointed board would be legally bound to perpetuate the institution.

But no matter how ironclad, wills are not immune to the vagaries of life. Williams anticipated trouble, confiding to a friend that “there are those who would try to destroy my will,” and she was right.

From the end of the Civil War until her death, Williams simply declined to pay taxes in Virginia. She was spending most of her time in New York and didn’t see the point. Now Amherst County and the state of Virginia wanted to tap into her estate to recover hundreds of thousands of dollar in back taxes.

The “screaming statue” on a monument to Daisy Williams at Sweet Briar. Photograph by Flickr user BTuggle.

And there was family. As long as she lived, Williams refused to acknowledge her nieces and nephews. They were her brother Lucian’s children—Lucian, whom a local sheriff once called “the worst outlaw in the history of the county,” owing to a slew of charges (not all of which stuck) for child abuse, assault, blackmail and murder, among other transgressions. Excommunicated by family, Lucian would nonetheless make occasional appearances at Sweet Briar, during which he would offer not to kill Williams so long as she gave him money. When he died, he was buried in the farthest corner of the family cemetery. His children–feral, to Williams’ thinking–felt themselves the rightful heirs to her fortune. They filed suit, the basis of their legal strategy that their aunt was “insane” and hence her will invalid.

But her will held up. It rebuffed the government and Lucian’s kids, and so in 1901 the Sweet Briar Institute was established–with an all-male board–to “offer to the young women of the South carefully formulated courses of study leading to degrees, of high grade and proper adaptation to the needs and capabilities of the female mind.”

The school would be Dixie’s counter to the North’s Vassar and Bryn Mawr, as the board described it, and the campus would be idyllic: “Situated among the Blue Ridge Mountains, fourteen hundred feet above sea level, the school is in a healthful and invigorating climate… on all sides within easy reach of virgin forest of oak, hickory, poplar and pine.” There were “wide, sloping lawns of rich blue grass” and “a charming little lake … with overhanging beeches and willows … on which the students may enjoy skating in the winter and boating and fishing in the spring and autumn… The whole place is pervaded with an air of peacefulness, retirement and refinement.”

Over the ensuing century the school more or less lived up to its billing. It became particularly noteworthy for its pastoral charm, its four-year engineering degree, rare among women’s colleges, and for its dominant equestrian program.

As single-sex education has become increasingly unfashionable in recent years, diminishing enrollments at men’s and women’s colleges have driven many of them to either closure or coeducation. Sweet Briar’s board cited two major factors in its decision to shut down: declining enrollment and an inflexible endowment with too much money designated to specific programs and funds, unavailable for covering general expenses and debt payments.

SEE ALSO: “IT’S HEARTBREAKING THAT SWEET BRIAR COLLEGE WILL CLOSE”

But an alumni organization, Saving Sweet Briar, with the assistance of a forensic accountant, quickly disputed the financial assessment. The school’s $94 million endowment was good, not great–better than the endowments at other small liberal arts schools that weren’t closing. And the balance sheet had actually improved in recent years. The long-term challenges were undeniable, but the short-term situation was relatively stable. The school wasn’t about to go bankrupt.

This disagreement over how to interpret dollars and cents–essentially a matter of interpretive accounting–is now the pith of the crucial question: Is Indian Fletcher Williams’ will breakable today in a way that it wasn’t in 1900?

The issue may hinge on a legal principle called cy pres, or the “approximation doctrine.” According to cy pres, courts should err on the side of requiring charitable trusts to uphold their original missions, except in a case where the execution of the original mission has become impossible.

If the court were to agree with the board that the school was on an unsustainable, irreversible decline, it would then determine the nearest reasonable alternative application of the land and money, something that in this case would somehow still contribute to the education of women. But alumni and faculty deeply distrust the leadership’s commitment to the college, arguing that the board members only projected out trends and then opted not to invest their energies in finding a solution between now and when the school would have actually become insolvent years into the future.

After news broke in March of the impending closure, pundits were quick to label Sweet Briar a harbinger of not just single-sex education but liberal arts education’s financial ruin. If they’re right, then the courts will back the board’s decision. If not–if this is a case of either mismanagement or negligence, as alumni and faculty tend to think–it might not help Sweet Briar anyway. What parent would send a daughter to a school that has announced the tenuousness of its existence? What current sophomore would stick around to find out whether her school will have her back for a junior year? In the past, Indiana Fletcher Williams’ will was enough to keep threats to Sweet Briar at bay. Today, alumni and faculty hope that same will can keep the school from going the way of history.

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