When George Washington University bought Mount Vernon College, it didn’t buy the school’s teachers.
Founder’s Day makes for strange theater at a school that no longer exists. Mostly, it looks like just another piece of American collegiate ritual: Gap-clad students, tweedy teachers, and wealthy alums in their best power suits gather together to celebrate beneath the soft yellow light of the elegant Post Hall in the Academic Building. Chandeliers twinkle against mirrors and gold wall sconces, highlighting the glossy coiffures of the assembled.
Executive Dean Grae Baxter, resplendent in an ice-blue suit, thanks the assembled for coming, and for their ongoing support for Mount Vernon College’s 120-year-old mission of educating women.
She thanks them all, that is, except one: Monica Heppel. Middle-aged Monica Heppel, who for 19 years taught at the small liberal arts women’s college, will have to leave. Baxter quietly takes her aside and asks her to go. The eviction, in fact, is about the only indication that there’s any baggage left over from the death of Mount Vernon, which quietly took place last June.
On this day designed to honor those who built the college, Heppel is no longer welcome. She exits, walking past a cafeteria where improbably young-looking students hunch over dinner, and past an idling shuttle bus that waits to take still others to the main campus of George Washington University.
In 1996, GW signed an affiliation agreement with Mount Vernon. Under the deal, GW took on more than $6.5 million of the financially troubled school’s debt. And the university retained the option of taking over Mount Vernon entirely if it couldn’t fix the college’s woes within a two-year period. That’s what happened in the winter of 1997-1998, when GW took over the 23-acre campus in Washington’s tony Foxhall neighborhood, later renaming the institution George Washington University at Mount Vernon College. And that’s when GW gave notice to the entire Mount Vernon staff, effective May 1999.
“Mount Vernon College as an academic institution ended June 30, 1999,” says Baxter, emphasizing the decisiveness of the break. “All its programs and its [academic] accreditation by the Middle States Association ceased at that time.” Some 35 professors, most of them tenured, were let go. A few were rehired in new positions at GW. But most—including Heppel—were not. Thirteen of those faculty members filed suit in D.C. Superior Court in December 1998, charging breach of contract, breach of covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and age discrimination.
The displaced professors suggest that in assuming Mount Vernon’s debts and obligations, GW should have honored the defunct college’s promises of tenure as well. “There are few, if any, precedents for ignoring contractual obligations associated with tenure,” the professors write in a fundraising letter. Says their official complaint: “Bona fide financial exigencies did not exist that would justify terminating the professors’ contracts. To the contrary, Mount Vernon College closed because George Washington University wanted to assume total control over MVC’s facilities and did not want to honor MVC’s employment contracts with the plaintiffs.”
Because GW replaced many professors with far younger non-tenure-track temporary employees, they added the age discrimination charge to the complaint.
A year later, the disgruntled ex-professors have started a Web site, passed out leaflets, and hit up sympathetic alums for money to support a case that may set them back $100,000. Neither Baxter nor Heppel and her colleagues will talk about the specifics of the case, but the former professor of cultural anthropology is willing to hold forth on the cultural changes she thinks have turned Mount Vernon into a branch of something that acts an awful lot like just another big business. “You very quickly lost the sense of community,” she says. “[But] I don’t think any of us anticipated we’d completely lose our jobs.”
“The last year, we had essentially two colleges going,” says Heppel, over a cup of black-currant tea in her Kalorama living room. After the takeover was announced, Mount Vernon freshmen and sophomores were officially transferred to the more academically rigorous GW, while juniors and seniors stayed on to graduate from Mount Vernon.
According to Heppel, a group of faculty members made the difficult decision to stay on after being given notice and to teach until their students graduated, instead of handing them over to a bunch of part-timers. Meanwhile, two sets of faculty worked on campus, teaching the two groups of students. Before her eyes, says Heppel, a college that emphasized teaching, community, and collaborative decision making was slowly supplanted by outside professors, new male students, and more hierarchical decision-making structures.
Back at Mount Vernon, more changes are coming online. Today, the campus is no longer a women’s college, but women’s student housing with co-ed classes. Some 250 female GW students now live on campus, and there are plans afoot to build space for 180 more. Over time, the residences may become co-ed, and house up to 789 students.
Baxter says that in taking over and transforming Mount Vernon, GW is simply providing what contemporary students are looking for. “We will have to think strategically about what that increased capacity means and what the students ultimately want,” she says.
Baxter adds that the fate of Mount Vernon and its faculty is merely the sad final chapter of a history that has doomed many women’s colleges. “Now that most colleges and universities are coeducational and providing opportunities for women, many women are opting for a co-ed environment,” she says. “Mount Vernon suffered from lack of financing and, simply, lack of enrollment. It could not attract enough students to sustain itself, and in that sense it was typical of many women’s colleges across the country.”
But Jadwiga Sebrechts, the president of the Women’s College Coalition at D.C.’s Trinity College, says the displacement of Mount Vernon’s faculty isn’t necessarily just about fate. In the ’90s, she says, the attrition or failure rate of women’s colleges has actually been lower than that of co-ed institutions.
“The fate of Mount Vernon College is not in fact the typical event in this time period. What is more typical in the ’90s is to have women’s colleges that are thriving,” Sebrechts says. “In the late ’60s and early ’70s is when most of the decrease took place—about 60 percent.”
And academics sympathetic to the lawsuit say that no matter why Mount Vernon failed, the firings are a case of cold business calculations being applied to a category of people—tenured professors—long accustomed to permanent job security. “When a university is going to take over, they look for jobs for those faculty members within the university,” says George Holmes, the president of the D.C. Conference of the American Association of University Professors and a microbiology professor at Howard University College of Medicine.
Holmes believes due process, academic freedom, and the principle of faculty governance that his organization holds dear may all have been violated at Mount Vernon. “If we find out these allegations to be accurate, then the national conference will either sanction or censure the university,” says Holmes. “If that happens, it’s very bad for a university—what that says is that this university does not have fair practices as an academic institution.”
Though the court case will hinge on exactly what obligations GW has to the staff of a school that managed itself out of existence, the buzzword on campuses appears to be “fairness.” And it’s not just about professors mouthing expectations for secure lifetime sinecures. Even GW’s student paper raised questions about the school’s hardhearted personnel decisions in an early November editorial.
“Whether GW has a solid legal case is not the point,” wrote the staff of The GW Hatchet. “When GW took over MVC, pledging to make it an excellent learning environment for women, certain obligations were inherent in that pledge. By disregarding the professional status of the 13 professors involved in the lawsuit, the University is chipping away at part of the core of MVC—the faculty.”
As if getting bumped from their tenured jobs weren’t bad enough, former Mount Vernon professors are finding that the academic job market isn’t much friendlier. A couple of decades at a small, friendly teaching college—especially a small, friendly teaching college that fails—doesn’t do much for a resume in today’s glutted academic job market.
Heppel is currently working at a think tank and teaching one course as an adjunct professor at American University. Her fellow plaintiff, former interior design Professor Joseph Wnuck, returned full-time to the architectural practice he maintained on the side during his years at Mount Vernon, and now works exclusively as a professional rather than a professor.
“There is not much available in the metro area that would allow me to get back into teaching,” Wnuck says. “And, at this late date in my career, I don’t really feel like making a move, which is what it would require. I’m 56 years old. Quite frankly, I made a decision to change careers when I taught at Mount Vernon. I had not anticipated this at all.”
Neither did Pat Ortman, a former associate professor of psychology and human development who is still looking for work. Four months after the end of Mount Vernon, Ortman is still livid about what she calls an unfriendly end to a friendly way of life. “No one ever acknowledged who we [the faculty] were or what we had managed to keep accomplishing at that college, right up to the very end. It seemed as if, to add insult to injury, they just couldn’t wait to get us out of there.”
Baxter, of course, can point out that without GW’s intervention—which Mount Vernon’s leaders sought out after other arrangements fell through—the college’s students might have been just as far up the creek as Heppel. Now, the Mount Vernon campus is forecast to be making money within three years, no matter what academic threads have been left untied.
Normally, when women’s colleges merge with larger universities or go co-ed, they make the decision in advance and do it clearly and openly. In the Mount Vernon case, the process was protracted and the end goal of the transition is still not clear. The professors aren’t the only ones impatient for a little plain dealing.
“Even within the constellation of colleges I deal with, I cannot find another case like Mount Vernon’s,” says Sebrechts. “The sense of closure or finality in that transition is not clear to us. The transition and the actual status of the institution, and the status of the institution as a women’s college within GW, is still in question. It may be a function of trying different things and not being absolutely conclusive on what the end result will be, but that has the effect, at least for someone looking at it from the outside, of not being clear on what the ultimate goal is.” CP