MVC professors to fight GW in legal battle

Depositions will begin next week in a civil case filed by 13 former professors of Mount Vernon College, who say GW violated their contracts when the University took over the college’s academic programs.

We feel that tenure is a contract, and therefore Mount Vernon College had certain contractual obligations, said Monica Heppel, a former associate professor of anthropology who now chairs the Faculty Action Committee, representing the 13 plaintiffs. We feel that the contract was breached.

The University made a financial agreement with the women’s college in 1996, saving it from defaulting on a previous loan from Georgetown University.

A year later, GW announced it would take over MVC as an arm of the University. At that time, all MVC professors, many of whom were either tenured or on a tenured track, were told they would be let go at the end of the 1998-99 school year and could re-apply for a one-year assistant professor position at GW, Heppel said.

Grae Baxter, former president of MVC and current executive dean of the Mount Vernon campus, said though she could not comment on the specific charges, she thinks the University gave professors ample information about the uncertainty of their future.

They were aware of the conditions of the affiliation, the needs for the college to meet certain financial benchmarks and the lack of a guarantee of a job, Baxter said. They were all encouraged to begin thinking about their transition to a new position.

Basically, they received in excess of one year’s notice, she said.

The attorney for the professors, Michael Kane of the D.C. firm of Cashdan, Golden and Kane, said the case is in the fact-finding stage, with depositions starting at D.C. Superior Court next week. A request for summary judgement is expected to follow. If summary judgement is denied, a trial will begin. Kane said the plaintiffs would consider a settlement.

When GW took over the school, they took over the obligations to the professors, Kane said. When they took over the good stuff, they also took over the debt, and GW is responsible for it.

Heppel said she hopes the University will restore the jobs to the 13 professors. She said all professors but three are employed elsewhere. Heppel is a researcher working with the InterAmerican Institute on Migration and Labor.

We were told. out of respect for the GW hiring process, they were not able to essentially fold us into the existing structure, she said.

Baxter said the professors’ contracts were with MVC, not the University, and therefore were terminated when the college ceased to exist after the graduation of the last class last May. She said her office helped professors stay aware of openings at GW.

Heppel admits MVC professors’ hopes were bleak even before the University came into the picture in 1996.

We would have lost our jobs the way any college closes, she said.

But, she said she believes what the University did was illegal because it terminated a contract.

Kane said the lawsuit is based on a belief the University did more than come into an affiliation with MVC.

The whole theory of our case is that there was a de facto merger, he said. MVC was absorbed by GW, and they absorbed the assets, liabilities and contract obligations.

Baxter said professors were treated with respect.

GW had no obligation to them, she said. Legally, everything was done.

Sara Mulkern, GW’s attorney for the case, referred all comments to Baxter. Walter Bortz, a GW vice president and chairman of Mount Vernon’s Board of Trustees, and Barbara Porter, GW director of Public Affairs, had no comment.

To help pay for legal expenses, Heppel and other professors have sent letters to MVC alumni, informing them of the lawsuit and asking for donations.

In many ways it would be easier to walk away from this sad and painful experience, according to the letter. However, we believe it is important for us to stand up for rights.

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