The governing board of Randolph Macon Woman’s College broke a contract with students when it decided in 2006 to immediately begin enrolling men, a lawyer for a group of female students told the Virginia Supreme Court on Monday.
Attorney Wyatt B. Durrette Jr. urged the court to reinstate the students’ breach of contract lawsuit, which Lynchburg Circuit Judge Leyburn Mosby Jr. dismissed last year. Durrette said documents provided by the school including promotional materials, admission letters and the academic catalog touted its single-sex education mission.
“The students allege with specificity they were promised four years at an all-female institution,” Durrette said. “That is the bargain they seek to enforce.”
Edward J. Fuhr, attorney for what is now Randolph College, argued that marketing materials do not amount to a contract and said the academic catalog includes a disclaimer that things can change without notice. He also suggested the appeal is moot because about 60 men already are enrolled at the Lynchburg school.
The contract case was one of two lawsuits involving Randolph’s coeducation status heard back-to-back by the Supreme Court. In the other, some students and donors claim the college cannot raise money for the purpose of educating women only then spend it on something else.
The college’s board cited declining enrollment as a reason for ending its 115-year tradition of women-only education. Enrollment this year is about 700, about the same as it had been when the change was made.
Some justices voiced concern about whether the breach of contract lawsuit was tossed out prematurely, before the plaintiffs were allowed to present their case.
“It seems to me there’s going to have to be evidence,” said Justice Donald Lemons. He said the situation is akin to someone applying to a dentistry school, then enrolling and finding out it’s really a veterinary school.
Fuhr argued that students were never expressly promised that the college would remain all-female. He also said students don’t commit to stay for four years when they enroll, so “at most you had a one-semester contract.”
Durrette disagreed, saying enrollment in a four-year college is “like a lease with an option to renew.” And in this case, he suggested, the terms were being changed midstream.
The second lawsuit, which also was dismissed by the circuit court, centered on whether charitable trust law prohibits the college from spending donations on coeducation.
“Fundamentally, it’s wrong to take assets intended for one purpose and use them for another purpose, charitable or otherwise,” plaintiffs’ attorney William Hurd told the court.
Justice Steven Agee wondered whether Hurd’s argument meant a food bank couldn’t expand its services and offer clothing for the needy. Fuhr said such an outcome would erect “a very serious roadblock to a lot of public good.”
Fuhr also argued that under the law, it would be up to the state attorney general to intervene if donations were being improperly spent.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the cases in June.
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