Shorter College decided in 2002 that it needed more distance from the Georgia Baptist Convention, and severed its ties to the group. The Georgia Supreme Court ruled 4 to 3 Monday that Shorter's board didn't have the authority to do so.
The majority decision did not focus on religious doctrine or academic freedom, but on technical points of the laws governing corporations in Georgia. Because the case focused entirely on state law, an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is not an option, said Dawn Tolbert, a spokeswoman for Shorter. She said that college officials expected new court hearings on reconstituting Shorter's board.
Shorter has been a religious institution since it was founded in 1873, but its official link to the George Baptist Convention dates to 1959, when the college agreed to let the convention select trustees in return for financial support from the convention. Relations between the college and the convention deteriorated in 2001, when the convention abandoned a longstanding practice of picking trustees from lists submitted by the college. At the same time, Shorter received questions from its accreditor about whether the convention had too much control over the college.
So in 2002, the college's board voted to sever ties to the convention and to shut the college down and shift control of its assets to its foundation. The foundation in turn reestablished the college with its own board. And the entire process was challenged by the Georgia Baptists.
In the Georgia Supreme Court's ruling, it cited limits on when boards of corporations -- nonprofit and for-profit -- can dissolve entities, as Shorter's board did with the college's operations in 2002. Shorter's board would have been within its rights, the court ruled, to have transferred control of the college to another college. But it couldn't shut down with the goal of just setting up a new corporate structure.
The board's action "constituted an unauthorized effort on the part of the board to reorganize the college so as to operate the school as before, but with a new set of trustees."
The dissent argued that the majority opinion focused too narrowly on governance issues and ignored the obligation of a board to carry out a nonprofit college's mission. The potentially "devastating" loss of accreditation, for example, justified the college's action, the dissent said.
The Georgia Baptist Convention issued a statement Monday praising the court's ruling, and pledging to help Shorter thrive. Tolbert, the college spokeswoman, said that people on campus were "a little stunned," but hoping for the best. "There were many years that we worked very well with the convention," she said.