Over 100 years ago, Indiana Fletcher Williams, by her will, established a testamentary trust that led to the creation of Sweet Briar College in Amherst, Virginia. Williams' intent was clear: to benefit "girls and young women" by creating a school for their education and advancement. Ironically, the trustees of that very same trust are now committed to closing the school, a position that has spawned several lawsuits challenging the trustees' decision, a trip to the Supreme Court of Virginia, and a looming trial in Amherst County Circuit Court.
As the trustee of the trust created by Williams' will, the corporation that operates Sweet Briar has various fiduciary duties under Virginia law. Those duties include the duty to "administer the trust and invest trust assets in good faith, in accordance with its terms and purposes and the interests of the beneficiaries" and the duty to "administer the trust solely in the interests of the beneficiaries." Students -- both past, present, and future -- are the obvious beneficiaries Williams had in mind when she wrote her will.
In this morning's Richmond Times Dispatch, Karin Kapsidelis reports that a vice president of finance at Sweet Briar College has ordered one of the school's professors to shut down a student-led business class project aimed at saving the college. The project involves selling t-shirts through what appears to be a school on-line store, and then donating a portion of the proceeds to Saving Sweet Briar. Saving Sweet Briar is a not for profit organization motivated by one goal -- "Saving Sweet Briar, Inc. is dedicated to ensuring the continued operation and sustainability of Sweet Briar College for future generations of women."
Remarkably, this modest and humble student-led project -- a project that most certainly would be applauded by Williams herself -- has drawn the ire of the school's administration. Why? According to the vice president who gave the cease and desist order to the professor, raising money to donate to an organization dedicated to saving the school creates an impermissible "conflict of interest" with the school.
If that explanation strikes you as bizarre and untenable, I'm with you. How could a project aimed at saving a trust by the beneficiaries of the trust create an impermissible "conflict of interest" with the trustee, whose duty is to administer the trust in accordance with the intent of the person who created the trust? It seems to me these students and this professor should receive support from the school's administration, not a cease and desist order.
In my opinion, T-Shirtgate is very telling as to the overall dispute concerning the closing of Sweet Briar College. It illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding by the trustees of their duties. And when a trustee misunderstands his or her duties, that is when the courts in Virginia will step in to make sure the original intent of a trust is enforced.