Decision leaves some students scrambling, saddened

Three students from the Santa Fe University of Art and Design have filed a lawsuit over the decision to close the school following the spring 2018 semester. Luis Sánchez Saturno/New Mexican file photo

Three students from the Santa Fe University of Art and Design have filed a lawsuit accusing the for-profit school and its parent company, Laureate Education Inc., of fraud and breach of contract for deciding to close the school following the spring 2018 semester.

“It’s not just the value of the four years that they lose,” said Santa Fe attorney Ben Allison, who is representing the students, “but the way it can affect their earning potential for the rest of their lives. There is a lot of stress and emotional harm that happens from this kind of disruption.”

The lawsuit, filed Thursday by Lucian Orsinger, Mark Baker-Sanchez and Calvin Ambrose Taylor in the First Judicial District Court in Santa Fe, seeks an unspecified amount in compensation for damages, including economic and emotional distress, as well as punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.

Earlier this month, the university’s leaders, citing financial challenges and declining enrollment, announced they were closing the school in May 2018. The decision, which came after the collapse of a proposed sale to the Singapore-based Raffles Education Corp., left current freshmen and sophomores, who won’t have enough credits to graduate by then, scrambling to transfer to other schools. Only incoming seniors will be allowed to return to the midtown campus in the fall.

College leaders have said about 170 of the school’s 680 students could graduate before the closure.

The college has asked students who plan to return as seniors to commit in writing by May 5. It also is offering a $2,500 tuition credit to any student who wants to transfer and has agreements with more than 10 colleges to help transfer students continue pursuing their degrees.

The lawsuit calls that offer “little more than an illusory buyout” that “will not come close to compensating students for the costs associated with transferring schools.”

Allison said the $2,500 deal “appears to be an incentive to push students out so that they can wash their hands of everybody faster.”

The students who filed the suit did not respond to requests for comment on the case.

For most students, the lawsuit says, it’s too late in the year to enroll at another college by the fall semester, and there is no guarantee that other schools will offer the same level of financial aid they received at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. The Robert Redford-Milagro Initiative Scholarship, for instance, has provided 100 percent of tuition and other fees for nearly 70 eligible film students at the university since 2013. That scholarship will not transfer elsewhere, Allison said.

Rand Hadid, who is not a party to the suit, is a Syrian native who enrolled at the university as a freshman this year on the Redford scholarship. She said administrators are not giving her clear information about which colleges will accept her or what scholarships she may be eligible to receive. The $2,500 offer, she said, “is not much at all.”

She was expecting to spend four years at the school, Hadid said. “And now I have nothing. No residency … no job, no bank account. And they are telling me, ‘Sorry, we can’t help you.’ ”

Allison likened Laureate’s decision to close to “floating the students halfway across the lake and then popping the inner tube.”

“It’s about Laureate putting their profits ahead of the students,” he added.

Allison said seniors who return in the fall will find that the campus is “a skeleton of an educational experience with no certainty about what classes or professors will be left for them.”

Rachael Lighty, a spokeswoman for the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, said last week that the school is expecting at least 150 seniors to come back in the fall, and it is dedicated to “teaching out” their degrees. She said the school is communicating with parents and students to make the transition easier.

On Thursday she said, “At this time, we’re unaware of this lawsuit; however, we are unable to comment on legal matters.”

The Santa Fe University of Art and Design operates on the site of the former College of Santa Fe, which was run by the Christian Brothers of New Mexico. The College of Santa Fe began experiencing financial trouble about 10 years ago, and in 2009, its board of trustees decided to close the school.

The city of Santa Fe bought the campus for about $20 million and leased most of it to a Laureate-backed group called Santa Fe Higher Education LLC. The city also sold some of the property to the state.

Last year, the Santa Fe City Council approved an extension of Laureate’s lease for the 62-acre campus at $2.2 million a year, the same amount as the city’s bond payments for the land along St. Michael’s Drive. The lease agreement requires the arts college to give seven months’ notice to the city if it plans to end the deal.

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.

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