Professor moves to arbitration after Wong rejects faculty hearing decision

President Leslie Wong rejected a decision made by the Faculty Hearing Panel regarding complaints about the University breaching faculty contracts on Jan. 30.

Since 2014, Professor Aaron Belkin has been at odds with the administration over alleged breaches of his contract. Two years ago, the University informed him they would no longer honor his contract as agreed and assigned him a full load of classes.

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Belkin claims he asked Wong to honor his contract in December 2014. Wong accused him of committing criminal fraud by imposing a light teaching load on the taxpayer, said Belkin poses no value to the University, and encouraged him to resign.

Part of Belkin’s contract guaranteed a reduced class load so he could continue his research as the director of the Palm Center think tank when he was recruited to SF State from UC Santa Barbara in 2009.

Belkin’s claims have been supported in a witness statement written by Steven Gluckstern, the Founding Chairman of the Board of the Palm Center. In the statement, Gluckstern described the meeting between Belkin and Wong as “uniquely offensive.”

A decision handed down by an official Faculty Hearing Panel January 11 stated that SF State “has a contractual obligation” to honor its agreement with Belkin, and that not doing so could have “serious, negative, long-term consequences,” according to a press release issued by the Palm Center. Wong was given 21 days to accept or reject the decision.

According to Belkin, Wong defended his decision in a three-page letter, which stated that employment offers are not binding unless stated in the official offer letter. At the time of Belkin’s hire, the standard practice was to break the offer into two parts and additional terms were spelled out in emails between the dean and the incoming faculty member.

“The dean that hired me hired 150 faculty members,” Belkin said. “I was not warned that the key part would not be binding.”

Several other faculty members have come forward with similar stories of their contracts being breached by the university. In a survey administered to the faculty in November by Belkin, 25-of-58 participants answered affirmatively to the question: “Have administrators ever broken an agreement with you?” Belkin himself vetted seven of these cases, and four professors testified at the hearing.

Professor Samuel McCormick, who was recruited from Purdue University in 2012, negotiated several terms and conditions for his appointment that were meant to be as similar as possible to his hiring conditions at his last university. Three years later, the interim dean at the time, Daniel Bernardi, informed McCormick they were no longer going to honor any of his hiring agreements.

“He threatened me,” McCormick said. “He threatened to increase my teaching load if I didn’t let it go and walk away from the issue.”

In the summer of 2016, when McCormick asked Bernardi to reconsider his hiring agreement, Bernardi followed through on the threat, giving McCormick an additional course for fall 2016 that McCormick had to scramble to cover.

“It was a low point in my university career because I had never seen an administrator abuse his or her power so directly and overtly,” McCormick said. “It was really stunning and, from my point of view, beneath the standards of an institution like SF State, which prides itself on social justice.”

Another faculty member, professor Marc Stein, also testified at the hearing. SF State hired Stein in 2014, recruiting him from York University, where he had taught for 16 years, for a position in the history department.

Stein’s contract disputes arose when the University declined to reimburse him for moving expenses, as they had promised, and refused to honor a schedule of leaves and sabbaticals he had been promised in his hiring agreement. Though Stein eventually found a compromise with the University, he chose to share his story at the hearing.

“My outcome was more positive, but where it’s consistent is in the fact that in two instances, the University indicated to me that it did not regard my hiring agreement as binding and it would not necessarily honor the terms,” Stein said. “I’m continuing to speak out because of the principle and the negative ramifications for the University.”

One of the biggest concerns for McCormick and Stein is how this situation will affect SF State’s ability to recruit and retain staff.

“How can we, as faculty committed to providing students with the best education possible, recruit and retain top-flight professors if the University doesn’t believe that the terms and conditions of one’s employment, as negotiated and agreed to in writing, are binding and enforceable?” McCormick said. “It’s a very scary prospect for the future of SF State.”

The next step in the grievance process for Belkin is arbitration, which uses a neutral third-party to settle a dispute.

“I love the university,” Belkin said. “I think many people in the administration do a good job and are well-intentioned. I think there’s an integrity issue at the very top of this administration.”

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