After voting 16 to 5 to merge with Harvard School on Monday night, trustees from Westlake School adjourned to Jimmy’s restaurant to celebrate a “wonderful dream” come true.
“What this is about is creating a wonderful school,” exulted Westlake Trustee Sheldon Sloan, predicting that it will “set standards not just for the West but for the United States. We’re going to have a first-class prep school in this town the likes of which has not been seen before.”
Absent from the festivities at the tony Beverly Hills eatery were a small group of trustees who viewed the merger as the death of a dream that was Westlake School.
In their effort to preserve the independence of the prestigious Holmby Hills school whose graduates include actress Candice Bergen and astronaut Sally Ride, merger opponents, including two trustees, have filed suit seeking to block it.
The suit contends that the merger was ill-conceived and was brought to a vote without sufficient consideration of the options. The opponents contend that the deal was engineered by a group of wealthy, socially prominent people led by Peter and Helen Bing. The Bings, West Los Angeles residents who are active in a variety of local philanthropic efforts, have close ties to both schools.
A third trustee, David May II, a scion of the department store family, quit the board after 24 years as a trustee to protest the merger, contending that Harvard’s ties to the Episcopal Church were not compatible with Westlake’s non-sectarian traditions.
Opponents say the merger would essentially cede Westlake’s $50-million Holmby Hills property to Harvard, whose ex officio board president is Frederick H. Borsch, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. In their lawsuit, they point out that an article in the November issue of the diocesan newsletter quotes Harvard Headmaster Thomas C. Hudnut as confirming a continued relationship with the church in the merged junior and senior high school.
Since the surprise announcement in October that a merger had been agreed upon in principle, the Westlake community has been in an uproar. A coalition of alumnae, parents and students oppose the merger for reasons varying from a preference for single-sex education to a concern that the venerable girls’ school had underestimated its value and made a bad business bargain.
A majority of Harvard parents favor going co-ed, in keeping with a national trend among private boys’ schools.
The suit seeking to block the merger was filed by Westlake parents and has been joined by Trustees Anita May Rosenstein, David May’s daughter, and Rodney Berle.
The courtroom showdown promises to reveal in considerable detail the inner workings of a group of people who like to keep their business private, particularly the Bings. Helen Bing is a Westlake trustee and benefactor, and Peter Bing, a physician, serves in a similar capacity at Harvard, whose campus is in Studio City.
Asked for her thoughts on the merger and her role in it, Helen Bing said, “I really don’t have any comment to make.”
Sworn declarations filed in Los Angeles Superior Court allege that the merger was the work of a cabal of Bing associates on the Westlake board, and that other board members were unwilling to challenge the deal because of the Bings’ social prominence and financial power.
According to the declarations, Trustee Sloan is an attorney for the Bings, as is Daniel Belin, husband of Trustee Daisy Belin. Helen Bing’s personal physician, Gary Gitnick, is a trustee, the documents said. Sloan declined to comment on his professional ties to the Bings. Belin and Gitnick could not be reached for comment.
A letter to the board from David May included in the lawsuit documents notes that in 1981 Helen Bing donated the money to buy a home for Westlake Headmaster Nathan Reynolds and his family, who had been living in what May said were deplorable conditions on campus.
May also noted that Bing had vowed to withdraw her financial support for Westlake if she did not get her way about the merger.
A blistering attack on the manner in which the merger was handled is included in one letter from May to Helen Bing that is included in the documents. “I feel that everything that you and Peter want to accomplish could have been done very easily if it was done in a businesslike and tasteful manner that you had every right to expect.”
May characterized the handling of the merger as “incompetent,” lacking in “prudent judgment, tasteless, insensitive and heavy-handed.”
Later in the same letter, May said two expressions he had never before used came to mind in describing the terms of the merger: “male chauvinist” and “sexist.”
Under the signed merger agreement, the new school will be named Harvard-Westlake, the board will be controlled by current Harvard trustees and Hudnut will run the school. Reynolds, who is nearing retirement age, will be provost. Harvard’s Studio City facilities would become the campus for high school-age students and lower grades would be housed at Westlake.
Sloan and Reynolds used exactly the same words to respond to the lawsuit’s charges that the merger was engineered by the Bings and boosted by cronyism on the Westlake board.
“That’s nonsense,” the two men said in separate interviews.
Sloan said the real issue--education--has gotten lost amid the fight over the process, which he concedes was imperfect. “There’s nothing nefarious. No secret deals. No smoking guns,” he said.
Helen Bing is by all accounts a tireless worker for Westlake and a major benefactor. “She’s an incredible human being,” Sloan said.
Indeed, even as he criticizes the merger in his letters, May describes Helen Bing as the school’s “most valuable trustee,” even without considering her financial support.
In addition to serving as a Harvard trustee, Peter Bing serves on the Stanford University board and is a director of the Times Mirror Co., which publishes the Los Angeles Times.
Peter Bing’s mother is Anna Bing Arnold, whose philanthropic activities are legendary in Los Angeles. The family fortune came from the New York real estate holdings of Arnold’s first husband, Leo Bing.
In an effort to thwart the merger, the Westlake parents have raised $4.7 million in cash and pledges, with Trustees Berle, television mogul Aaron Spelling and film executive Samuel Goldwyn offering to cover the school’s deficit for the next four years if the merger is thwarted--the assumption being that Westlake may lose some students if Harvard goes coeducational on its own.
The lawsuit questions, however, whether Harvard is actually poised to go co-ed on its own, and whether Westlake must immediately decide to merge or be left behind.
According to a letter from Hudnut to Harvard parents, the Studio City school has no timetable to become co-ed.
In the letter, Hudnut estimated that the cost of going co-ed without Westlake at $30 million and said that if the Westlake merger does not occur, Harvard would be back to “square one,” faced with the prospect of raising the money, finding property and building a second campus.