Fired MVC faculty sue for compensation

Former Mount Vernon College professors will seek compensation from GW in D.C. Superior Court Monday, charging that their contracts were violated when GW took over the campus in 1999.

Filing suit against Mount Vernon College, which now exists only as a corporate entity with no financial assets, the professors seek about $5 million in lost salaries and benefits, said Michael Kane, the plaintiffs’ lawyer.

Kane said he is unsure who will pay if the court rules for the Mount Vernon professors. GW officials said the University’s financial responsibility to the college is void and GW will not pay if the professors win the suit.

GW assumed financial control of the 26-acre women’s college in the summer of 1999 after the college failed to become financially viable by standards set in an affiliation agreement between GW and Mount Vernon in 1996. The Mount Vernon College terminated contracts of all 50 Mount Vernon professors in 1999. The professors received a 17-months notice and $1,000 to help find another job.

“There is no more Mount Vernon College as an educational institution, so there’s no need for an affiliation,” Executive Dean of MVC Grae Baxter said. “(Who will pay any damages) is one of the great mysteries of the whole process.”

GW plays a big part in the case, Kane said, because the defense will call mostly GW witnesses to testify, including University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg. GW lawyers will represent Mount Vernon, according to a March 23 Chronicle of Higher Education report.

Trachtenberg said he is unsure why GW lawyers are representing Mount Vernon College in the suit.

The 13 former Mount Vernon professors originally included GW in the suit filed in 1999, claiming the affiliation agreement included obligations to honor their contracts.

“We think GW is certainly very responsible for the contracts because the administration was GW’s,” Kane said.

But a summary judgment issued last May by D.C. Superior Court Judge Rhonda Winston removed GW from the case, leaving Mount Vernon College’s corporate entity the sole defendant in the lawsuit – a decision Kane characterized as an “appealable issue.” Winston will hear the case Monday.

Trachtenberg said GW is not responsible for the terminated contracts.

“I can feel bad for people but that doesn’t mean I have to employ everyone who needs a job,” he said. “As far as I know, GW was excused by the court and that this litigation is against Mount Vernon College.”

Trachtenberg said the professors were invited to apply for openings at GW, and some are now employed by the University.

In the summer of 1996, Mount Vernon struggled financially as demand for women’s colleges dropped nationwide. Unable to pay off a $6.5 million loan from neighboring Georgetown University, the college turned to GW and entered an affiliation agreement with the University. GW absolved Mount Vernon’s debts and extended an open line of credit to the school.

In the agreement, GW had the right to close the college if it was not financially viable within two years.

“Financially viable,” meant reducing the college’s deficit to less than $2 million, according to the agreement. Former Mount Vernon professor Monica Heppel, a plaintiff in the suit, said the college did not have a fair chance to meet the standard because it was controlled by a GW-appointed board of trustees and president.

“We were not in charge of development and administration, GW came in and did that,” Heppel said. “You had the fox watching the chicken coop here, they said `we’ll build you up, just trust us.'”

In December 1997, Mount Vernon College was near bankruptcy and announced that the class of 1999 would be the college’s last and its professors – including those with tenure or on tenure tracks – would be laid off.

Heppel said she believes GW planned a takeover masked by a financial rescue of the college. She said GW undermined the college by making little effort to recruit students and earmarking money to improve the campus’s appearance without developing academic programs.

“GW has a bit of a reputation for being land hungry as an urban university,” said Heppel, who recounted when Trachtenberg announced his intent to make Mount Vernon “the best women’s college on the East Coast” in a graduation speech. “We think (GW officials) mischaracterized their interest in the campus.”

Trachtenberg and Baxter said GW made every effort to help the women’s college to a full financial recovery and thought the college could reach the goal to cut its debt to $2 million.

“Our hope was to be able to sustain a women’s college affiliated with The George Washington University,” Trachtenberg said.

Baxter said that while GW took steps to recruit and raise money for Mount Vernon, its success as a women’s college failed before GW arrived.

“Mount Vernon College had been on life support since the early ’90s,” Baxter said, citing declining student interest in attending women’s colleges. “The fact is students prefer coeducation and want coeducation, and that’s just the reality of it.”

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