Via The Chronicle of Higher Education
by Scott Smallwood
March 23, 2001
Mount Vernon faculty members sue over a takeover by George Washington U.
This story has a hint of fairy tale to it. There’s a handsome knight, George Washington University. There’s a fair maiden, Mount Vernon College, a little college for women in the nation’s capital. And once upon a time, back in 1996, the knight galloped to the rescue of the maiden, who was drowning in a sea of red ink.
Here, Mount Vernon faculty members thought, is our savior. Their benefactor talked of creating a world-class women’s college. In their daydreams, they saw new programs, new money, maybe even new carpeting. But the fine print of the deal didn’t cover such niceties. Instead, it called for the maiden to surrender her independence if she wished to be saved. The agreement gave George Washington control of Mount Vernon — control of the board, control of the finances, and, ultimately, control over whether the faculty members had anyplace left to work.
Fairy tales aren’t supposed to end up in a District of Columbia courtroom, but that’s where this story is headed. On April 2, a breach-of-contract lawsuit brought by 13 faculty members against George Washington and the soon-to-be-history Mount Vernon is slated to go to trial. The professors argue that Mount Vernon violated their tenure contracts, and that G.W. didn’t give the college a fair shot at survival. They describe the deal as more of a corporate takeover.
On the other hand, what good is tenure at a college that was likely to shut down anyway?
Since they were let go, the professors say, their lives have changed drastically. James Burford, a professor of art at Mount Vernon for 20 years, now travels the Beltway each week, teaching part-time at three local colleges. He’s hoping to crack the $30,000 barrier this year, still considerably less than the $41,000 he made in his last year at Mount Vernon. James Hull, who after 20 years as an English professor at Mount Vernon still made less than $40,000 a year, now wakes up at 5 a.m. to drive to a high-school teaching job more than an hour away. “My lifestyle is certainly very different,” he says. “I didn’t know how good I had it as a college professor.”
Whether the deal is called a merger, an affiliation, or a takeover, professors at any small college swallowed up by a larger institution fear losing their jobs. In this case, George Washington says, it never merged with Mount Vernon. Instead, the two — as G.W. puts it — “affiliated,” whereupon arrangements for the closing of Mount Vernon began taking shape, while the college’s Board of Trustees was led by a G.W. administrator. “Mount Vernon as it was known is gone,” says Grae Baxter, G.W.’s executive dean of the college’s campus. “It’s not anybody’s fault. It’s just evolution, institutional evolution.”
The agreement led to a strange year on the Mount Vernon campus in 1999, as professors stuck around teaching the last seniors in what one faculty member called a “funeral-like” setting. The college, where 400 students once studied, was down to 100 or so by the end.
G.W. professors, meanwhile, were setting up shop. Rosemary Bolig, a human-development professor, says Mount Vernon faculty members were subjected to daily indignities. While they sweltered in steamy offices, air conditioners were installed nearby. As paint peeled from their walls, they say, offices being used by the G.W. professors were freshened up. And as they were teaching Mount Vernon’s last students, construction workers shuffled in to measure for that new carpeting.
Today, a women’s-leadership center remains on the campus, but most everything else about the formerly all-women’s college has changed. Most classes there already include men, and next fall, the final gender barrier will be shattered: The Mount Vernon campus will simply be an extension of G.W., a few miles away, and both men and women will live in the dormitories. What happened to the white knight from 1996?
“What have they saved?” says Patricia Ortman, one of the professors in the lawsuit. “Nothing. Just the land.”
Yes, the land. For while Mount Vernon never had that many students, wasn’t terribly competitive, and didn’t make the jump from junior college to four-year institution until the 1970′s, it did have 23 acres of choice real estate in a prime Washington neighborhood. George Washington, on the other hand, occupies an urban campus in Foggy Bottom, an area near the White House that offers the university no room for growth, and is known better for diplomats and K Street lawyers than green quadrangles. The Mount Vernon professors, as they watch George Washington invest millions of dollars in their old campus, say the deal looks less like an academic endeavor than a real-estate scam.
In 1875, Elizabeth J. Somers founded the Mount Vernon Seminary — a “family and day school for young ladies” — in her Washington home. The school provided six years of study, including two beyond high school. The junior college was established as a separate unit 50 years later, and the school moved to its current campus just after World War II. Most of the buildings surrounding a small quadrangle and fountain at the center of the campus were built in the late 1940′s.
Then, after nearly a century of existence, the college made two decisions that would define its final 25 years. First, Mount Vernon closed the high school, alienating many of the wealthiest alumnae from a college that would desperately need an endowment to finance its next big shift: becoming a four-year institution. That second decision could hardly have been more ill-timed.
In 1960, there were about 300 women’s colleges around the country. By 1998, the number had dropped to 80. In the mid-1970′s, as women’s colleges struggled to find students and money, Mount Vernon attempted the jump to a more competitive level.
For a while, the college seemed to be on solid ground. But administrators kept faculty members in the dark on the financial health of the institution, says Milton Eisner, a former mathematics professor.
Problems with the balance sheets became clear in 1993, when Lucyann Geiselman, then president of the college, started shopping around for help. Georgetown University, located just down the road, lent Mount Vernon $6.5-million; the college put up its 26-acre campus as security. The deal forestalled bankruptcy, but would lead eventually to the closing of the college.
Before long, realizing that the college couldn’t continue making the payments on the loan, Ms. Geiselman sought a partnership arrangement. But Georgetown wasn’t interested, and by the summer of 1996, the situation had become dire. A group of deans met at an administrator’s apartment that August, asking whether the college would even open that fall. Professors had been bringing in their own chalk. Whispers of nearly missed payrolls circulated among staff members.
Then, in October 1996, Mount Vernon and George Washington struck their “affiliation” deal. G.W. would pay off the $6.5-million loan and extend Mount Vernon a line of credit. The college’s trustees agreed to resign, allowing the university to appoint new ones. The new board, led by a G.W. vice president, stripped the Mount Vernon president of the power to spend more than $5,000 without prior approval. Most important, the agreement gave George Washington an option to shut Mount Vernon if the college failed to meet financial benchmarks in the next two years.
Just over a year later, in December 1997, the bleeding had stopped — bills were getting paid, and worries about missing paychecks were gone, says Monica Heppel, a former anthropology professor who is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. But it was clear that the college would fall far short of the financial goals set forth in the agreement. Mount Vernon announced that it would close in the spring of 1999, and that all faculty members — about 50 full-time professors, almost half of them with tenure — would be terminated. The tenured professors were given 17 months’ notice and $1,000 each to help with their job searches. Mount Vernon declared a financial exigency to justify the layoffs, but the faculty members don’t buy that explanation.
“I would assert that Mount Vernon was in financial exigency only if George Washington was in financial exigency,” says Mr. Eisner, the former math professor. “It’s as if I have an account A, and a million dollars in account B, and then declare financial exigency because I run out of money in account A. It’s just another accounting line.”
In December 1998, a group of professors — 11 with tenure and two who would have come up for tenure were it not for the affiliation agreement — sued Mount Vernon and George Washington, arguing, among other things, that the institutions had broken their contracts by not following the faculty handbook in establishing a bona fide financial exigency. They also argued that the college had failed to act in good faith by not seriously trying to stay afloat economically. They pointed out that the college had ended its student-recruiting efforts and had failed to consider cost-cutting moves. Mr. Burford, one of the professors, remembers seeing George Washington logos, not Mount Vernon ones, in the admissions office that year. He asked one of the staff members there if she had any Mount Vernon stationery. “I’m not sure,” she said. “I think we may have a box in the back room.”
In responding to the suit, G.W.’s lawyers painted the situation as a simple contract case, not a complicated tenure battle. “Plaintiffs lost their jobs because their employer, Mount Vernon College, was insolvent and went out of the teaching business,” the lawyers wrote in a brief.
George Washington also argued that the affiliation agreement meant that Mount Vernon, not George Washington, would continue to employ the professors under the terms of their contracts. “If personnel actions impacted Mount Vernon College faculty, those actions were not taken by George Washington University,” Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, the university’s president, said in a deposition. “They didn’t work for me.”
Last May, Judge Rhonda Reid Winston agreed, awarding George Washington summary judgment on several parts of the case and effectively leaving the hollow shell of Mount Vernon College as the sole defendant in the lawsuit. While it no longer exists as an educational institution, Mount Vernon College as a corporate entity, devoid of any real assets, remains. And although G.W. is no longer officially part of the suit, the university’s lawyers are still working on the case.
Shortly before the judge’s order, the professors had written to Mount Vernon’s alumnae, explaining what had happened and asking for money to pay legal bills. That prompted a rebuttal from the Mount Vernon alumnae association.
The professors argue that G.W. wants it both ways — pronouncing Mount Vernon dead and closed in order to terminate professors, but calling the Mount Vernon “legacy” alive and well to encourage donations. “The only place where Mount Vernon seems to exist is in letters to the alumnae,” says Ms. Heppel, the former anthropology professor.
She points to a recent fund-raising letter in which Ms. Baxter, G.W.’s executive dean, wrote: “Only with your support … can we ensure that the Mount Vernon of the future is the same Mount Vernon that changed and shaped our alumnae.”
Ms. Baxter says George Washington never meant to deceive Mount Vernon’s alumnae and simply wanted to preserve a place to which they could feel connected. “We didn’t want them to be orphaned,” she says.
For their part, the alumnae are realistic about Mount Vernon, says Barbara Jean Martin Long, the association’s president. “Mount Vernon was going to close. We consider ourselves lucky that G.W. had a vision and wants to keep it alive.”
Younger, more mobile Mount Vernon faculty members found other jobs, but those who sued — most of them in their late 40′s or early 50′s — had established lives and families in Washington, and balked at the idea of starting over elsewhere. Of the 13 who filed the lawsuit, few have found full-time teaching jobs, and none has another tenured position.
“I knew in my gut that my academic career was over,” says Ms. Ortman, a former human-development professor. She’s now splitting time between research and painting murals in children’s bedrooms. Ms. Bolig has a one-year visiting professorship at the University of the District Columbia. Mr. Eisner, who started at Mount Vernon in 1980, is now a statistician for the National Institutes of Health.
The Mount Vernon story points out a peculiarity of higher education. When a phone company or a hardware store buys out a bankrupt business, lots of people may lose their jobs. But those phone operators didn’t have tenure. The professors suing G.W. say colleges shouldn’t be run like companies. “For G.W., it’s all business,” says Sharon Ahern Fechter, a former professor of Spanish and English as a second language. “Why did they do it? Because they thought they could. But sometimes you stand up to the bully.” Then she admits, “The bully may bulldoze us.”
George Washington certainly has the heavy machinery. Mount Vernon’s campus is now filled with construction workers, trucks, and cranes, fulfilling a $30-million construction project.
In 1996, when Ms. Baxter arrived at Mount Vernon as a consultant, she found science labs no better than those in 1950′s high schools, and below-standard athletics fields, she says. According to an affidavit filed as part of the court case, she saw “an old and neglected facility” that was home to a “a sparse, unhappy, and demoralized student body.”
Now she’s excited each morning to come to the campus and watch a phoenix rise from the ashes. From her office window, she can see the muddy lacrosse field take shape and the rising concrete platforms that will form the parking garage. She can point to the location of the 12 new tennis courts (six of them covered). Architectural plans rest on the wall below the window, foretelling a day when the building she’s sitting in won’t exist, when new dormitories will replace the old.
As she walks around the campus, Ms. Baxter greets many of the students by name. Mount Vernon is a small, collegial place, now nestled inside a giant research university. The atmosphere, she says, has attracted G.W. professors who enjoy teaching and love the small classes — few of the classrooms are large enough to have more than 20 students. “It’s closer to sitting under the tree and discussing the great works,” she says.
The faculty members who lost their jobs want to paint G.W. as the villain, but if so, it’s a villain that has poured money into a campus nearing collapse. Try telling Ms. Baxter — as she looks out on the new softball field or points to a dorm addition — that she’s the villain. “We as an institution exist for students,” she says. “We don’t exist to keep people employed.”
The former professors don’t believe that covered tennis courts and a new swimming pool absolve George Washington of its sins.
“Anytime someone plants a daffodil, does the place look better physically? Yes,” says Ms. Fechter. “Is education about physical looks? I don’t think so. To be a higher-education institution and lie yourself into the property, or, at best, mislead your way into that property, it doesn’t matter what it looks like. It’s morally bankrupt.”