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Clark Atlanta Engineering Program Has Day In Court

Clark Atlanta University engineering student Yemaya Stallworth sat in a Georgia courtroom Tuesday trying to make sense of the school’s attempts to shut down its engineering program.

“It hurts me very much,” said Stallworth, a 21-year-old junior electrical engineering major. “The biggest thing that angers me is it’s our own people doing it to us.” 

The Georgia Supreme Court heard oral arguments Tuesday in the case involving a group of CAU students and faculty who are hoping to prevent the closing of the school’s engineering department.

The student and faculty group say CAU officials, specifically president Walter Broadnax, didn’t follow procedures when they decided in 2003 to shut down the now 13-year-old engineering program.

Part of that process would have allowed more input in the decision.

The group is arguing that, had school officials followed proper procedures, it’s unlikely the department would have been shut down.

“We’re not asking the court to intervene with the decisions of the university,” the group’s attorney, Gina Mangham, told the seven justices. “What we’re asking you to do is to make the university enforce its contractual obligations to the students and the faculty.”

With the school facing $7.5 million in debt, Broadnax announced the closing of the engineering department as a way to help the school save money. 

The program would be phased out over five years, giving every student an opportunity to graduate. The school would continue to participate in a dual degree engineering program, which allows CAU students to study for three years at the school and then transfer to another school’s engineering program to finish their engineering requirements.

The group filed suit in Fulton County Superior Court, where they hoped to get an injunction to stop the department’s closing, now scheduled for Spring 2008.

That court, however, ruled in the school’s favor, saying the private institution had a right to make the decision. That decision was appealed to the Georgia Court of Appeals, which sent the case to the Georgia Supreme Court.

Burton Dodd, the attorney representing CAU, told the justices Tuesday that school officials did nothing wrong in deciding to close the department.

“I don’t think the students and the faculty can prove that President Broadnax’s decision breached any contractual rights they had,” Dodd said. “The decision itself is clearly lawful and does not breach the contractual relationship.”

The seven justices mostly listened to the oral arguments, but also questioned both attorneys on what the contractual obligations the school had towards the students and faculty.

“What would be your solution to this?” Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears asked Mangham.

“They should at least fulfill their contractual obligation to these students,” Mangham said. ”We’re not conceding it is a good decision to close the program.  Had they gone through the process outlined in the faculty handbook, they would have reached an entirely different decision.”

A decision from the Georgia Supreme Court is expected sometime in the next two to four months.

Meanwhile, the engineering program, which had 280 students and 19 faculty members in 2003, now has only about 60 students and seven instructors.

“[The situation] is causing students a lot of stress and anxiety,” says engineering department chairman Lebone Mobeti. “It’s put a tremendous strain on them.”



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