How the legal fight to save the College was won, from the attorney who fired the first shot

Posted on March 22, 2016 by Jennifer McManamay

Ellen Bowyer, the attorney for Amherst County who brought the first lawsuit in the ultimately successful legal wrangling to keep Sweet Briar open, will speak on campus about that experience.

She will present “The Fight for Sweet Briar College” at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 30, in the 1948 Theater as part of the College’s annual Honors Colloquia series. Bowyer’s presentation will describe the fight from its beginning in mid-March to the settlement in June. She will speak from the perspective of the past, offering the comments she would have shared had she been addressing the College on June 23, 2015, the day after the settlement hearing.

“The fight was not only extremely interesting from a legal perspective, it offers a lot of lessons and insights into the process of an organization’s transitioning from one state to another, and the potential pitfalls and opportunities inherent in that process,” Bowyer says.

“One issue into which I have less insight is the emotional trauma that key stakeholders experienced throughout the attempted closure. I can’t speak to this, but I am keenly aware of it and hope my comments will reflect that awareness.”

Bowyer’s colloquium is an opportunity to share her perspective with the entire campus community. This semester, she is teaching a 200-level course, The Fight for Sweet Briar College: Lessons in Law and Organizational Governance, as an adjunct assistant professor in the government department. The class, which meets Wednesday evenings, quickly reached capacity with four seniors, three juniors and eight sophomores seated, and eight students on the waiting list.

“My students bring an open and engaged attitude towards the class material,” Bowyer noted. “We have great class discussions and they actually planned the final class project, which is going to be an applied project — a very good fit with the material being taught — rather than the paper I had originally envisioned.”

She volunteered to teach the course to give students greater insight into what happened in the course of the fight.

“Things happened very fast and it was a complicated case, both legally and factually. I thought it would be helpful to step back, break the whole case down into related segments, and spend some time discussing exactly what happened and why.”

The teaching experience has been “amazing,” she says.

“It takes a tremendous amount of time to prepare for a two-and-a-half hour class session, but the wonderful benefit is that I am gaining a much deeper and richer insight into the fight from hearing my students’ perspectives on things. I really enjoy engaging with them; they have great resilience and absolutely infectious optimism and energy.”

Bowyer has served as the attorney for Amherst County since 2010, and in that capacity, sued on behalf of the commonwealth of Virginia to keep Sweet Briar open. She was joined in the action by special counsel from the law firm of Troutman Sanders. The case ultimately was heard before the Virginia Supreme Court and it was that court’s ruling — supporting critical arguments relating to the College’s status as a testamentary trustee — that paved the way to a settlement in which the College remained open under new leadership.

For more information about this event, please contact the dean’s office at or (434) 381-6205.

This event also coincides with Sweet Briar Forever Month. Throughout March, the  College is hosting a series of events and observances to commemorate events that followed the closing announcement on March 3, 2015, to demonstrate the community’s renewed strength and commitment to the College’s mission of providing young women a liberal arts education. Click here for more information.