KU wants students to pay $283K bill

University wants to recoup fees from lawsuit on scholarship hall maintenance

Kansas University officials want former students and their attorneys to pay for a four-year court battle over management of a trust fund for Watkins and Miller scholarship halls.

According to documents filed in Douglas County District Court, KU is asking for $283,533 in fees charged by attorneys for Bank of America, which administers the trust, to be paid by the 26 former residents of the halls who sued the bank and KU.

The action shocked the former residents, said Hilary Wanke, a May 2003 graduate.

“None of us have $280,000,” she said. “I have more debt than I’m worth. I fully believe they’re trying to send a message that ‘Nobody should stand up to us again.'”

The lawsuit was filed in 2001, after a year of hearings to determine whether residents of the hall were, in fact, beneficiaries of the trust fund and entitled to sue. The fund was established by Elizabeth Miller Watkins for maintenance of the halls, both on Lilac Lane on the KU campus.

In the lawsuit against KU and Bank of America, members of the Student Committee for Preservation of Miller and Watkins Scholarship Halls claimed the fund wasn’t being used for proper upkeep at the halls.

The women dropped much of the their suit in the fall. They claimed victory, in part, because KU had provided improvements at the halls. KU officials said the improvements weren’t related to the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs said they found no signs of mismanagement in the past five years, the period available for litigation under the statute of limitations.

In late February, the final appeals by the committee — to have KU establish a committee including students to oversee maintenance planning at the halls — were denied by Douglas County District Judge Jack Murphy.

Bank of America later filed a motion asking that the $283,533 it spent defending the case be reimbursed from the trust fund. But KU officials said that would harm them as a beneficiary of the fund and asked that the costs be passed on to the plaintiffs.

“If the court does not assess attorneys fees and expenses against plaintiffs, future residents of Watkins Hall or Miller Hall will bear the result of decreases in the trust income and all trust assets for years to come, with rent increases being required to replace lost trust income,” wrote Rose Marino, associate general counsel.

Murphy now must rule on how the fees will be paid.

“The university is simply asking for the judge to decide what is fair,” said Todd Cohen, a KU spokesman.

David Brown, the attorney who represents the former scholarship hall residents, said he would fight to keep the plaintiffs from having to pay the fees themselves. He said KU’s request was especially inappropriate considering Murphy sided with his clients on a majority of legal issues.

“It’s ridiculous,” Brown said. “It lacks merit. There’s no basis for law on this.”

For Wanke, the former student, the request amounts to a betrayal by her alma mater.

“I’m hurt,” she said. “I really feel like as an educational institution, they want to make us stellar individuals. And now it’s like they’re telling us we should never question people in positions of authority. We saw something wrong in a situation and in a community we really love.”