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Virginia Supreme Court Rejects Challenges to College Admitting Men

June 9, 2008

Nearly two years after Randolph-Macon Woman's College announced plans to become coeducational, the Virginia Supreme Court on Friday gave a decisive victory to the college (now coeducational and called Randolph College) in rejecting two suits challenging the switch.

One suit argued that the college -- by virtue of all of the statements in admissions materials and elsewhere promoting itself as a women's college -- had a contract with the students who enrolled and couldn't changes its mission after they had enrolled. The other argued that the college was a trust under Virginia law, for the purpose of educating women, and couldn't have its mission changed. In both cases, the Supreme Court ruled that, as a matter of Virginia law, the plaintiffs hadn't demonstrated enough evidence that the college had a formal contract with students, or was a trust.

While both lawsuits were motivated by a desire to preserve the college as a women's institution, the Virginia court's rulings in the cases did not address the merits of single sex vs. mixed education, and framed the cases as a strict matter of the sufficiency of evidence to make certain arguments.

For Randolph College, the decisions should end the legal dispute over its decision to admit men, which college leaders said was necessary because of declining enrollment and poor finances, but which alumnae and student critics said was considered because poor management had hurt the institution. John E. Klein, president of the college, issued a statement in which he said: “With the litigation resolved, we can now center all of our energy, time, and resources on continuing to move this college forward.” Decisions of other women's colleges have sometimes angered alumnae and students, but many of these institutions have gone on to repair relations and to thrive, but that peace-making process generally doesn't begin in full while lawsuits are pending, so Friday's news could be key for the college.

Anne Yastremski, executive director of Preserve Educational Choice, a group of alumnae and donors that backed the lawsuits, said that if the college's trustees "can legally change the college’s mission after a major capital campaign in which students, alumnae and friends of the college were told their donations would guarantee the school’s long-term viability as a women’s liberal arts college, then who is to say other charities won’t operate with the same disregard for donor intent?" She added: "By silencing the voices of these capital campaign donors and students, the court has essentially stripped all Virginians of any right to question -- much less enforce -- the terms and use of charitable contributions.”

Beyond Randolph, the case was also being watched by groups that argue that colleges' decisions need more scrutiny.

Support for the students and alumnae challenging the college, for example, has come from some of those backing a suit against Princeton University, charging that it has used an endowment -- now worth about $900 million -- set up for the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs for broader purposes and in ways that go against the intent of the gift that set up the fund. (Princeton denies the charges and the case is in court.) A similar case, involving a reorganization at Tulane University, also pits alumni who say the college changed inappropriately with a board that says it needs to be able to make decisions about the institution.

Ada Meloy, general counsel for the American Council on Education, said that while the Virginia Supreme Court rulings were based on "narrow" issues of Virginia law, there are important principles for higher education in affirming the right of colleges' boards and faculties to control their policies.

"I think that alumni are a very important constituency for any institution," she said. "However, they generally experience the institution in a very small slice of the institution's life, when they are there. They need to recognize that as time marches on, the wonderful institution for them decades before is not necessarily what is best for students or the institution as time moves ahead."

 

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