Agreement would keep open women's college in Virginia

By Gary Robertson

RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) - Sweet Briar College, a 114-year-old private women's school in Virginia that has suffered dwindling enrollment and was set to close due to financial problems, will remain open under a legal settlement, state Attorney General Mark Herring said on Saturday.

The mediated settlement would end the legal wrangling between officials at the college who want to close the school and alumnae and friends who have been fighting to keep the institution near Lynchburg open, under the umbrella of a nonprofit group called "Saving Sweet Briar."

The agreement would still have to be approved by a Circuit Court in Amherst County, and a hearing on the issue before Judge James Updike is set for Monday, officials said.

"I am pleased that the parties were able to reach a mediated resolution to the litigation involving Sweet Briar College," Herring said in a statement.

In March, college officials announced Sweet Briar would shut its doors on Aug. 25, joining a long line of women's colleges that have closed in recent years because of shrinking enrollments and the dwindling appeal of single-sex institutions.

The Women's College Coalition says in 2014 there were 47 women's colleges United States and Canada, down from 230 in 1960.

This spring Sweet Briar's enrollment, which college officials said once topped more than 700 students, dropped to 532.

Seven business days after the mediated agreement receives court approval, Sweet Briar's current president, James F. Jones Jr, would be required to resign, and litigation against the college would be dropped.

Financially, the agreement requires the college's backers to commit to delivering $12 million in donations for the college's operations in 2015 and 2016.

The attorney general said he also would consent to the lifting of certain restrictions to enable $16 million of the college's endowment to be spent for ongoing operations.

"Today's settlement is an answer to the prayers of many and a powerful validation of fighting for what you believe in," Sarah Clement, chair of Saving Sweet Briar, said on Saturday on the group's website.

Clement added that $21 million in pledges have been generated by alumnae and the community.

(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Richard Chang)