Who’s the rich guy helping poor Mount Ida students fight the school’s closing in court?
Bob Hildreth never spent a day as a student at Mt. Ida College, the now-defunct institution sold last year to the University of Massachusetts.
But that didn’t stop the Harvard-educated multimillionaire investor from rushing to the aid of the students — many of them low-income — who were left without a school when the cash-strapped Newton college campus was sold to give UMass Amherst a controversial foothold in the Boston higher-education market.
Hildreth personally bankrolled a lawsuit against Mt. Ida’s former administrators and trustees alleging that the students were illegally misled about the school’s financial stability and that their personal information has been provided to the UMass system without the students’ consent, contrary to state and federal law.
That suit was dismissed Friday by US District Judge Richard G. Stearns. But Hildreth insists he will continue to fight on behalf of students whom he views as collateral damage in campus closings.
“Colleges are up against the wall because of [changing] demographics,” Hildreth said in an interview Tuesday. “We’re going to face this issue over and over again.”
When I asked Hildreth how much he has spent on the case, he grew quiet for a second. “I’ve spent $130,000,” he said. “Don’t tell my wife.”
This kind of fight is right in Hildreth’s wheelhouse. Since making a fortune in the bond business, he has had a second career as an advocate for low-income and immigrant students. The nonprofit he started to help low-income families save money for college, Inversant, now operates in five cities across Massachusetts, giving guidance about financial aid and saving for college. He was so passionate about Mt. Ida partly because some of the students from his program had matriculated there.
That these are difficult times for the area’s small liberal arts colleges has been well documented. But the closing of Mt. Ida was particularly painful. Students were told they could transfer to UMass Dartmouth. But some of Mt. Ida’s most popular programs aren’t offered there. Mt. Ida’s students were treated as an afterthought.
Which leaves Hildreth furious. “They’ve basically said they have no responsibility to the kids,” Hildreth said of the Mt. Ida administrators. “And what the judge has done is endorse that position. That is a very narrow, lousy way to look at it.”
Hildreth, 68, said he came by his passion for underprivileged communities growing up in the home of two schoolteachers in Melrose. After studying economics and foreign affairs, he became a specialist on the debt of financially struggling Latin American countries, selling bonds at several high-end brokerage firms and, later, his own.
Besides his ventures in helping families without means pay for college, he has also put his money into immigration causes. After the high-profile ICE raid of a New Bedford textile mill in 2007, resulting in 361 arrests, he contributed $200,000 to help bail the workers out of jail.
Whether the students, backed by Hildreth, will appeal the case is unclear. Attorneys for the clients say they believe they have grounds, particularly based on the sharing of confidential student information. They also argue that Mt. Ida did not level with students about the school’s precarious finances that might have led them to make different choices. (Mt. Ida officials have insisted that the school’s financial health, warts and all, was disclosed to all the appropriate state agencies.)
Hildreth is less interested in the finer points of the law than in the effect of the closing. He invoked one of the most infamous cases in US legal history to drive home the point.
“The Dred Scott case may have been rightly decided under the law,” he said, citing the landmark ruling that allowed escaped slaves to be returned to slavery. “But the judge missed the bigger picture.”
Justice may be elusive for Mt. Ida students as well. But they have at least one resource-rich ally who relishes joining them in the fray.