Opinion

JOAN VENNOCHI

Maura Healey’s dodge on Mount Ida

Newton MA 02/24/18 A statue of Mt. Ida's mascot a Mustang in front of the school's Athletic Center. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff) topic: reporter:
Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff
A statue of Mt. Ida's mascot, a mustang, in front of the school's athletic center.

If only the now-defunct Mount Ida College had some connection to the also now-defunct Trump University.

Then Attorney General Maura Healey would have gladly raced to court to demand accountability from a school that she said took money from students and then suddenly shut down without proper notice or transfer options for a distraught and disrupted academic community. But minus any Trumpian association to stir her prosecutorial passions, she’s not taking any legal action — even though she argues Mount Ida’s leaders broke rules and maybe even the law. They, of course, deny that.

Everyone’s talking about the big college scandal involving rich parents who cheated their way to achieving their dreams of getting their kids into prestigious universities. Those parents are now being charged in federal court with an array of crimes. Meanwhile, a non-elite institution that shattered the humble dreams of families of modest means gets a pass from the state of Massachusetts. Sure, this scandal is less sexy and much tinier in scope — unless you’re one of the students who feel cheated by Mount Ida’s abrupt demise.

According to a letter sent from Healey’s office to Carlos Santiago, commissioner of the state Department of Higher Education, Mount Ida’s board of trustees and senior leadership, including President Barry Brown, “fell short of what is expected of a charitable board in meeting its obligations to an educational mission.” According to Healey, Brown and the trustees had plenty of advance notice about the school’s increasingly precarious financial conditions; failed to engage in contingency planning; and relied on “nontraditional and sometimes extraordinary transactions to close anticipated budget deficits.”

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Also, according to Healey, Mount Ida’s “continued recruitment of students, promising a four-year education while serious questions remained as to its financial viability, raises serious fiduciary duty and Chapter 93A consumer protection concerns”; and the school’s closure caused “immeasurable harm” to its students.

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Yet, with all that, Healey concludes that pursuing litigation “would be costly, time-consuming, and of limited public benefit.” It sounds like a dodge — and Mount Ida’s past leaders are using it as wiggle room to deny wrongdoing.

Brown’s lawyer, Howard M. Cooper, issued a statement that said Healey’s decision to decline to pursue litigation “speaks volumes.” Asked to expand upon what they said are “inaccuracies” in Healey’s letter, Cooper and Paul Lannon, who represents the board of trustees, said they had contingency plans for Mount Ida students; congratulated themselves for paying severance to faculty; and insisted they violated no state rules or regulations. As far as violating the state consumer protection act, the Mount Ida lawyers say that state law “does not apply to actions taken by a college engaged in their charitable mission of providing educational services.”

The case against Mount Ida is not yet over. Last November, three students filed suit against Mount Ida, accusing its leaders of fraud, misleading students, and violating student privacy. The defendants are seeking to dismiss the suit not by denying wrongdoing, but on the grounds that they owed the students “nothing,” the plaintiffs charge.

Meanwhile, other Mount Ida families who are not part of that litigation question Healey’s rationale. Healey argues that her detailed investigation into what happened at Mount Ida will serve as a lesson to other institutions. But as Laurel Collins, the mother of one former Mount Ida student, puts it, “There’s no punishment. Why would that change what any other school would do?” Given the alleged wrongdoing presented in Healey’s letter, Collins also asked, “What about that doesn’t reach the level of litigation”?

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It’s a good question. Healey has used the power of her office to file at least three dozen legal actions against the Trump administration, including several cases involving the abuse of student borrowers by predatory, for-profit schools, and a case against the US Department of Education for failing to provide federal loan discharges for students victimized by Corinthian Colleges, a for-profit education company that ended up in bankruptcy court.

Nationally, she will fight for college students. Why not at home, if she really believes rules and laws were broken here?

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.