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Order allows Sweet Briar College to dispose of some assets

Bedford County Judge James Updike released an amended order Monday that would allow Sweet Briar College to give its study abroad programs to Hollins University, with conditions attached to ensure Sweet Briar leaders could get the programs back in the future.

The amended order, released at about noon, also included provisions allowing the college to safely dispose of hazardous chemicals and to sell employees their personally assigned computers at fair-market value.

Updike did not grant permission to sell or lease the college’s horses in his order. The fate of the horses at the center of the school’s renowned equestrian program remains to be seen.

“When presented with the agreed order this morning, the Court preferred to postpone ruling on the requested relief regarding the horses, subject to presentation of further facts and potential proposals,” Christy Jackson, Sweet Briar’s spokeswoman, shared as part of a longer statement from the college.

“Our counsel will continue to work on the issue, and we are hopeful we will soon have a resolution that will allow us to secure the care and well-being of our horses.”

On April 29, Updike granted a six-month injunction barring the college from selling or disposing of its assets. The injunction came in response to a legal complaint filed by a group of students, alumnae and parents challenging college leaders planned closure of the school in August.

The injunction preserves the college’s assets from dispersal while the legal challenge still is pending.

College officials petitioned the court for four exemptions: the study abroad programs, the employee computers, the hazardous chemicals and the horses.

Initially, the plaintiffs objected to these exemptions, but a marathon of negotiation with the college and Hollins on Friday, Saturday and Sunday yielded a deal.

Mediator Mark Rubin, the director of the Virginia Center for Consensus Building worked with the parties. He is the same mediator who facilitated Wednesday’s face-to-face meeting between Sweet Briar and its legal adversaries at the Attorney General’s Office in Richmond.

The agreement allowed for the transfer of the highly-regarded study abroad programs in France and Spain to Hollins provided the university agrees not to close them, merge them with other programs, terminate directors or coordinators without cause or court approval, or transfer real property prior to the expiration of the requisition order.

That order will expire 90 days after the conclusion of all three of the current legal actions pending against Sweet Briar, or in six months, whichever is longer. Within that time, the college will have the opportunity to reacquire its programs for free.

In its statement, Sweet Briar said “intense, good-faith negotiation” led to the deal, and thanked everyone involved for their time.

“It was highly, highly negotiated,” Elliott Schuchardt, the lawyer for the students, alumnae and parents said. “Hollins made it clear that they were only going to go so far.”

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In a letter to Updike, Schuchardt wrote the college had convinced the plaintiffs a lack of conclusion on the issue was causing damage to the study abroad programs.

“It is my understanding that Sweet Briar’s program has lost approximately 30 percent of its students, because of uncertainty as to whether the fall 2015 semester would occur … This information, together with the programs’ certain loss of accreditation at the end of August 2015, convinced me that the best method for conserving these programs was to ‘park’ the programs at Hollins University for the duration.”

The deal also included permission to dispose of hazardous materials and sell employees their computers, as well as provisions for the college to lease for up to one year — but not sell — its horses. Previously, the college had requested the right to sell.

Updike included the first three provisions of the deal in his order, but struck out the part about the horses.

He also strengthened the language of the original order with the words, “and shall engage in no such act during the period of this injunction that has as its goals facilitating the closing of the college unless such act is authorized by further order of this court.”

Schuchardt commended the judge on that change, and saw the decision to leave the horses out as positive development, despite having agreed to the idea of a lease.

“They are a key part of the school’s curriculum, so I’m really pleased to hear the court wants to preserve that,” he said.

In an email, college riding program director Mimi Wroten shared disappointment the judge did not approve an exemption Monday to allow the lease of the horses. Wroten is set to become the riding director for Lynchburg College next year, unless Sweet Briar remains open.

“I believe that this ruling doesn’t do what Judge Updike intended as I do not think he had all of the information necessary to make this decision.”

Her email said the horses range in age from 6 to 24 years old, and the older horses in particular have to be kept in light work to retain their value. Normally, about 18 horses are sent to camp for the summer to get out of the heat and be kept in light work, but a deadline for that already has passed.

The faculty and staff of the riding program no longer will be employed by the school by the end of July, she wrote.

“We have no idea who will be taking care of the horses after those dates. Workers without prior knowledge and experience with this group of horses will have a hard time taking care of them due to the large number and individual needs of each animal. Having inexperienced short term workers who do not know the health histories of these horses will lower their value and could be detrimentally to their overall health and well being.

“A lease with the horses being cared for by known professionals would have been beneficial.”