[255 NJSuper Page 553] This is an action for damages based on an alleged contract between plaintiffs, who are former students at the College of Dental Medicine (hereinafter the "dental college") at Fairleigh Dickinson University (hereinafter "plaintiffs") against the Board of Trustees of the University (hereinafter "defendants").
The action arises out of a decision by defendants to permanently close the dental college and terminate the Graduate Studies Program leading to a degree of Doctor of Dental Medicine (hereinafter a "D.M.D. degree") due to a financial exigency. As a result of the closing of the dental college plaintiffs were deprived of an opportunity to complete the program leading to the award of a D.M.D. degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University Dental College.
Plaintiffs commenced the instant action on April 25, 1989 by filing an order to show cause seeking a preliminary injunction to prevent the closing of the dental college. Following denial of their application for injunctive relief, the case was transferred to the law division, and the matter was tried without a jury, by consent, based on a written stipulation of facts and exhibits as well as a certification containing additional undisputed facts submitted by defendants. The following findings of fact are based on the foregoing.
At the time this dispute arose, Fairleigh Dickinson University maintained a private college of dental medicine in Hackensack, New Jersey. Defendants published an annual Graduate Studies Bulletin detailing the various graduate programs offered and an annual bulletin for the dental college. That bulletin sets forth the dental programs offered, the curriculum for each of the four years of courses, and the terms upon which acceptance and admission into the dental college and continuation of the program to completion would be conditioned. The Graduate Studies Bulletin contained, among other things, a reservation of rights provision as follows:
"The University reserves the right in its sole judgment to make changes of any nature in the University's academic program, courses, schedule, or calendar whenever in its sole judgment it is deemed desirable to do so. The University also reserves the right to shift colleges, schools, institutes, programs, departments, or courses from one to another of its campuses. The foregoing changes may include, without limitation, the elimination of colleges, schools, institutes, programs, departments, or courses, the modification of the content of any
of the foregoing, the rescheduling of classes, with or without extending the announced academic term, the cancellation of scheduled classes, or other academic activities. If such changes are deemed desirable, the University may require or afford alternatives for scheduled classes or other academic notification of any such change as is reasonably practical under the circumstances . . . . [Payment of tuition or attendance at any classes shall constitute a student's acceptance of the University's rights as set forth in this and the two preceding paragraphs.] (Emphasis added)
Completion of the entire curriculum of courses over a period of no less than four years was required for graduation and eligibility for the degree of Doctor of Dental Medicine. The opportunity to take the New Jersey Dental Boards, a requirement to practice dentistry in this state, was conditioned upon completion of the four year program. Fairleigh Dickinson's dental program was accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation, and approved by the New Jersey State Board of Dental Examiners.
Eighty-three students were accepted each year for the four year program leading to the D.M.D. degree. In order to be accepted into the dental college, each applicant was required to take the Dental Admission Test given by the Council on Dental Education of the American Dental Association, complete a written application from the American Association of Dental Schools Application Service, submit recommendations and transcripts, and be interviewed.
After completing the application process, plaintiffs were notified by defendants that they had been accepted into the dental college for the course of studies leading to the D.M.D. degree. Plaintiffs accepted defendants' offer, rejected alternative career options, notified defendants that they accepted the offer, paid defendants the tuition for the coming semester, took appropriate steps respecting alternative career options, arranged their affairs to enable them to attend the program offered by defendants, and entered into the course of studies beginning in September 1986, 1987 or 1988. All plaintiffs were enrolled as full time students in the four year program although tuition
was due and payable on a semester basis. No formal written contract was ever executed.
On January 26, 1989, Fairleigh Dickinson University President Robert H. Donaldson was informed by the Chancellor of Higher Education, T. Edward Hollander, that the Governor's budget had appropriated 25% less money for the dental college for the 1989-90 school year than the college had received in 1988-89.
On March 7, 1989 defendants and President Donaldson met with Governor Kean, who informed them that the dental college would receive no State aid after the 1989-90 school year because the Governor had made a policy determination that it could no longer fund both the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and the dental college. State aid constituted 38.1% of the dental college's total budget for the 1988-89 school year. Due to this loss of aid, Fairleigh Dickinson University incurred a deficit of approximately $6,200,000 for the 1988-89 academic year. The university did not have funds available to make up for the loss of state aid to the dental college.
As a result, on March 28, 1989 President Donaldson recommended to defendants that the following action be taken: (1) that the process for consultation with faculty over closing of the dental college be initiated; (2) that the acceptance of a freshman class for the dental college for the 1989-90 school year be suspended; (3) that the search for a new dean for the dental college be suspended; (4) that the dental college be kept open so that certain students currently enrolled in their junior year at the dental college could complete their education during the 1989-90 school year; and (5) that the dental college close permanently in June 1990.
Meetings between university officials and dental college students to inform the students of the Governor's actions and President Donaldson's recommendations were held on March 27, April ...