Students sue Marylhurst University, seek class-action status
Two students filed a lawsuit Thursday against Marylhurst University, asking for a refund of tuition that they say was collected in April under false pretenses.
Chelsea Vincenzi and Sara Heggie are asking a federal judge to grant the case class-action status, saying they and hundreds of other students would not have paid the tuition if school officials had been honest with them about the looming closure of the 125-year-old Catholic university.
Marylhurst announced on May 17 that it would cease all operations before the end of 2018, citing financial problems and declining enrollment. But students and faculty say they were left in the dark by the university's Board of Trustees and President Melody Rose about the school's impending closure, and were not notified until a decision was already reached.
The lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Portland, seeks an order preserving all student records and executive compensation reports, in addition to the return of tuition paid in April. The plaintiffs, who are asking for a jury trial, say tuition refunds and penalties for violations of the Unlawful Trade Practices Act would amount to more than $5 million.
Last week, a grassroots group called "Marylhurst Resistance" formed in response to the closure, with the goal of doing anything possible to keep the school's doors open. The group, which met for the first time on May 25, includes Marylhurst students, alumni, faculty and staff.
"The decision to close was made totally unilaterally, with no input from any faculty or students," said a faculty member at the meeting who asked to remain anonymous because of fear of termination. "We want to say to the university, 'What you did was wrong because it was unilateral in nature, and we ask respectfully that you make up for that by bringing us to the table now, and let's see if there's a way out of this.'"
The faculty member said that despite continuous requests to attend meetings of the Board of Trustees, faculty members were always told they could not. "It's not OK what's been done here, on so many levels," he said. "They just simply did not do the right thing."
Chip Terhune, chair-elect of the Marylhurst Board of Trustees, said last week that the board had considered every possible alternative to closure "and concluded the only viable course of action was the one we took." Reached for comment Friday, he told The Review that "there are no words to convey the profound sadness we feel for students, staff and faculty while our community deals with this painful situation."
"Our goal is to help students, staff and faculty move forward in their academic pursuits and careers," Terhune said, "and they remain our top focus during this challenging time."
According to the lawsuit filed Thursday, Marylhurst promised students an exceptional academic and social experience and represented to students that they would be able to complete their degrees at the school, which is located between Lake Oswego and West Linn off Highway 43. But by March, the lawsuit claims, school officials knew or should have known that "crippling insolvency" would lead to the imminent closure of the university and that students who paid tuition in April would not be able to complete their degrees at the school.
"Rather than being upfront about its educational services as the law required," the lawsuit claims, "Marylhurst executives instead decided to mislead students and falsely tell them that any problems had been solved."
After the decision to close the school was announced on May 17, Rose told The Review that the university is working with 81 students who could complete their degrees by the end of summer 2018 by taking additional summer classes. However, that would leave an estimated 324 students who will have to transfer to another university to complete their degrees.
"As we look into legal matters with our attorneys, we will continue doing everything we can to help students transition," Terhune said Friday. "This includes collaborating with 25 other colleges and universities, with many offering tuition discounts and grants, fee waivers and other flexibility to address any potential financial impact and make this process as easy as possible for students to navigate."
Representatives from those colleges and universities gathered at Marylhurst last week to meet with students and help them chart their educational future. Rose and other school officials also hosted two Q&A sessions for students and said they were "focusing our attention on helping our students make the best possible arrangements under extremely challenging circumstances."
But that's not good enough, the lawsuit says, insisting that Marylhurst's behavior left students confused about their educational future and unsure about the school's ongoing certification and accreditation. The lawsuit, which was filed by Portland attorney Michael Fuller, defines the class as students who paid tuition in April 2018, who would not have paid that tuition if they had known about the impending closure, and who are now unable to graduate from Marylhurst.
It asks for actual, statutory and punitive damages and court costs, and points potential members of the class to a website, www.MarylhurstStudents.com, where they can begin the process of joining the lawsuit.