Former students of Mount Ida College sued their former school Monday, accusing its leaders of fraud, misleading students, and violating student privacy.
The complaint, which the plaintiffs hope to have certified as a class-action suit, names the college, its trustees, as well as its former CFO and two other administrators as defendants. It was filed Monday morning in federal court in Boston. Attorneys for the college disputed the claims.
The suit comes eight months after the small liberal arts college in Newton abruptly announced that it would close. The news shocked students and staff and left them scrambling to find new schools and jobs.
Mount Ida College sold its 75-acre campus to UMass Amherst, which has turned it into an outpost for students to complete Boston-area internships and other programs.
State Attorney General Maura Healey is also investigating Mount Ida because of similar questions about whether its leaders acted in the best interest of the school. After the closure, leaders testified that they had known for several years that it was “teetering on the brink of bankruptcy,” according to the lawsuit.
The closure left students in degree programs that were discontinued and credits that could not be transferred, and many students lost their scholarships and other forms of financial aid, the suit alleges.
“This could have been avoided,” the complaint says. “Yet, by closing abruptly, Mount Ida denied its students the opportunity to continue with their bargained for education, and their actions prevented some from enrolling in other institutions of higher education or pursuing their intended degrees altogether.”
The suit argues that Mount Ida had a chance to explain its financial situation to students and staff when it announced that it was going to merge with nearby Lasell College, but the suit contends that the school was not transparent about its reasons for trying to merge. Ultimately the merger did not happen.
It alleges that while Mount Ida leaders were “actively concealing the true nature of Mount Ida’s financial difficulties from its students, the defendants were also falsely holding Mount Ida out as a financially viable institution to [accreditors,] among others.”
And the suit alleges that while former Mount Ida president Barry Brown and others were assuring students that Mount Ida was viable, “they were simultaneously concealing the fact that Mount Ida was already seriously engaged in discussions with the University of Massachusetts system to sell its land and shutter the college.”
Brown did not respond to a request for comment.
The plaintiffs are Tristan Squeri, of Burlington, a former graphic design student at Mount Ida who now attends Lesley University; George O’Dea, of Brookline, a former funeral services major who is now enrolled in the funeral program started this year by Cape Cod Community College to accommodate the Mount Ida students; and Madeline McClain, of Westhampton, N.J., who had applied and been accepted to Mount Ida.
O’Dea and McClain could not be reached; Squeri declined to comment through public relations specialist Steve Crawford, who is working on behalf of the plaintiffs.
The college and its trustees are represented by Holland & Knight, a firm that has represented the school in the past. It is also Brown’s former workplace. In a statement on Monday, a spokeswoman for the firm said the allegations “rely upon incorrect information published erroneously in old media stories and statements twisted out of context.”
The statement said those claims are “meritless and will be vigorously defended by the college, its former officers, and its trustees, all of whom worked compassionately and tirelessly to provide realistic transition opportunities for all students following the college’s closure, and fully cooperated with the attorney general’s investigation.”
The complaint tells how McClain had turned down offers from other colleges because of the generous scholarship Mount Ida had promised. But by the time she found out Mount Ida was closing, it was too late to attend the other schools because enrollment deadlines had passed.
“The sudden closure of Mount Ida deprived enrolled and prospective students of their ability to meaningfully consider alternate schools, and Mount Ida knew this,” the suit says.
The suit specifically names Carmin Reiss, the chairwoman of the board at the time the school closed, citing her testimony at a state Senate oversight hearing that she knew as early as 2014 that the school was facing financial difficulty but intentionally did not inform current or prospective students. Reiss did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.
The suit also mentions the fact that Mount Ida officials provided sensitive personal information about its students to UMass Dartmouth without permission from students.
The suit is funded by Bob Hildreth, a former businessman and higher education philanthropist. Students are represented by attorneys Andra Hutchins, Michael Tauer, and Joshua Garick.
The suit does not specify an exact amount of money that students are seeking to recover. They would likely seek compensation to make up for higher tuition they have had to pay elsewhere, scholarships they lost, or extra courses they have had to take when their credits did not transfer.
The suit could be influential for the higher education industry as a whole. Specialists in the field expect more small colleges to close in the near future, and no school wants to end up like Mount Ida. Experts have closely watched the closure from the beginning.
In a press release sent by Crawford, Hildreth called the lawsuit “a shot across the bow of all colleges that if you are going to merge with, purchase or replace another college, you must first protect the rights of your students.”