Near the end of last year, Abbot Mark Cooper, Chancellor of Saint Anselm College filed a declaratory judgement suit against the Saint Anselm College Board of Trustees. What this suit meant, what its consequences were, and what started the dispute in the first place, were all questions that were left largely unanswered to the student body. The news threw the whole of campus into confusion just before their month-long winter break, without an opportunity to respond, react, or inquire upon this news. Students resorted to discussing the bombshell over break through instagram, where one particular meme page had the students going “nutty”.
Despite this entertaining vector of communication, the student body remained in the dark on the topic. Statements released from President Favazza and the Board of Trustees, and Abbot Mark Cooper have provided some clarification, but much was left to be learned. How did we get here? Why did Abbot Mark do this now? What caused the suit? Down what path does this lead us, the Saint Anselm College community? We had the opportunity to answer these questions by sitting down with representatives from both camps: Abbot Cooper and President Favazza.
Earlier in 2019, according to Abbot Mark, the Board of Trustees and the Members (the monks in solemn vows, seven of whom are also voting members on the Board) began the discussion of “sufficient independence” with regard to amending power for the bylaws of the college. Sufficient independence is one thing the school’s accreditation process relies upon, and the BOT believes that they do not have sufficient independence, thereby endangering the College’s accreditation. This discussion was a continuation of the 2009 accreditation process that officially separated the monastery from the college, creating two separate entities. During this process, the New England Commission on Higher Education (NECHE) accredited the school, but said that more work was left to be done in the future with regards to this benchmark of “sufficient independence”. President Favazza, however, did say definitively that “The college will be accredited”, as well as that “sufficient independence is not total independence” from the Members.
Abbot Cooper anticipated a potential difference of opinion between the jurisdiction of the BOT and the Members, and proposed earlier in 2019 that the Board and the Members create a “file” where all issues of jurisdiction and amending power be filed. At the end of eighteen months, Cooper suggested, the file would be reopened and depending on the amount of issues inside of it, the issue could be revisited or not. Such a proposal was rejected at that time by Board leadership.
From the summer of 2019, to the BOT meeting in October of 2019, the two parties had two different understandings of how amendments should be made in the Saint Anselm College bylaws. At the October 2019 meeting of the Board of Trustees, “They (the board) brought a lawyer to the meeting, who said ‘here’s the way we read Law 292:6’ in New Hampshire Law, we have the power to amend, and by the way, here’s some amendments” according to Abbot Cooper. He continued, “One of their amendments was to extend their own terms. Some of the people who are most interested in this are those who are rolling off (meeting the end of their term) on June 30th, so they said we will extend our terms up to another few years”
New Hampshire Law 292:6 is focused on the governance of voluntary member non-profit institutions and specifically on which body has the authority to amend the bylaws of such institutions, according to the office of President Favazza in his letter to alumni in response to the petition for declaratory judgement.
In order to veto the amendments at this October meeting of the Board of Trustees, according to the Board’s interpretation of 292:6, the Members had to amass a ⅔ vote to veto the amendments. There was a lack of clarity as to how the ⅔ of the Members would be counted as well. There are twenty-three Members, however, only 18 can make meetings. Three Members are in our California monastery, one is in a nursing home and cannot make it to meetings, and one is in Boston doing work for the Archdiocese. The veto passed 17-1, passing any threshold the board could have.
When asked, Abbot Cooper indicated that this interaction with the BOT was the flashpoint for his much-criticized decision to file his petition for declaratory judgement, and go public with the dispute.
That brings us to November 27th, when Abbot Cooper filed his Petition for Declaratory Judgement to the Hillsborough-Northern District court, asking the presiding judge to make a judgement on the interpretation of NH 292:6: the lawsuit in question. That’s the backstory: what does this mean for the college now?
Both Abbot Cooper and President Favazza were optimistic in the belief that this court battle would not in any way affect life for students on the hilltop. Favazza’s statement to alumni, released shortly after Abbot Cooper filed the lawsuit on November 27, emphasized this point: “What does this mean for students? I want to be clear: it continues to be business as usual here on campus. Students continue to learn, faculty to teach and research, and staff to continue with their roles of coaching, mentoring, and supporting the mission of the College. We continue to do all the things that make Saint Anselm College strong, vibrant, and transformative.”
Abbot Cooper was similarly positive on how this would affect students, saying, “I certainly think the school is strong enough to handle this, I don’t think it’s that serious or even that exciting a lawsuit/petition”. He later continued, “It doesn’t affect our curriculum, it doesn’t affect the student experience, the college will go on”.
The petition that was filed, often called a lawsuit (which is technically correct), is a petition for declaratory judgement, which asks the court of New Hampshire to make a ruling on 292:6, and affirm the interpretations of that law by either the Members (the Monks in solemn vows), or the Board of Trustees. This need was emphasized by Abbot Cooper: “We can’t have two sets of bylaws, we can’t have two groups thinking they have the ultimate power to amend”.
Both President Favazza and Abbot Cooper were careful to characterize the decision to file the petition as one that was forward-looking. “Why I am interested in this is not for today, but for the future…I trust the trustees we have right now with our catholic identity…I am interested in the amending power for the monks, not for today, but for some day in the future where they need it”, explained Abbot Cooper.
One of the biggest unanswered questions that remains is: What happens when all of this is done? Because the suit will leave a definite “winner” and “loser”, what are the worries that there will be a period of bad relations between the BOT and the Monastery?
Both Abbot Cooper and President Favazza expressed optimism with regards to these worries. President Favazza characterized the conflict as a “family squabble”, indicating that the two sides have very different interpretations of NH 292:6, but they share the common goals for the college and their mutual love for the college would prevail in mending any bad feelings between the two parties. Favazza shared his unique position, being a new President to the college: “I’m new, right, been here six months…but I have gone to board meetings, and I have witnessed that discussions are very…direct, but at the end of meetings, even after very direct conversations about this…92% of the board are alums, they love this place, they love the monks, and so even after a hard conversation, you see people hugging, saying ‘see you, Father’…There’s this really close commitment to the place that will prevail in the end”
Abbot Cooper also believes that the issue has been rife with myth and misunderstanding, saying “this isn’t a simple issue, it cannot be solved nor outlined easily with one sentence. It isn’t a Catholic issue, these are Members of the college working on behalf of the college, not on behalf of the monastery”.
Abbot Cooper’s disagreement with the Board over the interpretation of this one New Hampshire law has shined a not-so-flattering light on the college, especially considering the media coverage of the issue in the weeks following the suit. However, it is clear that this issue is, to quote both sides, “Not life-threatening (to the college)”.
Saint Anselm can and will continue to be a beacon for fraternity, public service, and intrinsic altruism that makes this campus so special. A disagreement between two sides of the ivory tower cannot bring that down. The students, the lifeblood of Saint Anselm College, have and will continue to demonstrate exemplary academic ability, selfless community dedication, and an Anselmian love of neighbor that has persisted since 1889, and will persist for years to come. Perhaps, after these events, it is time the college injected some of that lifeblood into the Board of Trustees, and represent the student body that makes this college so special. Perhaps then the college could avoid another internal fiasco like the one in which we currently find ourselves.