Faculty accuse SF State of breaching contracts

What constitutes a legally binding contract? The answer to that question has several SF State faculty members at odds with University administration. An article published by Inside Higher Ed on Monday has exposed what seven professors are calling a breach of contract, and that number is quickly growing.

It is common practice for universities to offer individualized benefits when recruiting or attempting to retain talented teaching staff. These perks often come in the form of reduced class obligations, research grant funding and sabbatical agreements.

Aaron Belkin is one of the seven professors requesting that the administration honor the promises they made when hiring, recruiting or retaining faculty. When the political science professor was recruited to SF State from UC Santa Barbara in 2009, his contract guaranteed a reduced class load so that he could continue his research work as the director of the Palm Center think tank.

“My contract is permanent, it has the word ‘permanent’ in it and the University honored it for five years,” Belkin said. Two years ago, he was informed that the SF State would no longer honor that agreement.

Belkin claims that he has fully vetted each of the seven current cases. While the contract issues originate from within different colleges and departments, he notes that the breaches have all occurred within the last few years.

In an official statement on behalf of the University, Jonathan Morales firmly refuted the allegations. That sentiment was echoed in an emailed statement from Jennifer Summit, interim provost and vice president of Academic Affairs. “I want to assure you that SF State has not breached faculty employment contracts, as has been alleged,” Summit said.

In a letter sent to the Academic Senate on Tuesday, Belkin and others claim that they have consulted attorneys who find the revocation of agreements to be “unconscionable and unlawful.” It should be noted that the letter was written on behalf of all seven cases, but it was only signed by the four professors identified in the Inside Higher Ed article.

“Some of the people who have had contracts breached did not feel safe signing the letter,” Belkin said. The Inside Higher Ed article reports that some faculty have been intimidated by SF State administrators, an issue that the official University statement did not address.

In an effort to explore the full scope of the problem, Belkin emailed all SF State teaching faculty with a survey on Tuesday morning. By early afternoon, he had already received responses from a dozen professors claiming that their contracts had also been breached. Belkin has yet to vet these additional cases but if they are found to be accurate, that would bring the total number of cases to 19 as of Tuesday..

Morales stated that the University has been in contact with several members of faculty to try and resolve issues regarding their “work schedules and perceived commitments made by prior administrations.”  However, Belkin recalls a much less amicable tone from President Leslie E. Wong. According to Belkin, Wong said, “I don’t care what you were offered by my predecessor.” Wong was appointed as SF State president in 2012.

Belkin and others have been given varying reason for the discontinuation of agreed terms, but former California Attorney General William Lockyer has found the administration rationale to be legally flawed and has voiced his concern to Wong directly.

The letter to the Academic Senate requests that a policy be adopted that would ensure that “all lawful past, present, and future hiring and retention agreements” be honored going forward. The letter was signed by Belkin as well as David Landy, Samuel McCormick and Marc Stein. Belkin had not yet received a response on Tuesday afternoon.

However, Belkin and others hope that their advocacy will help to create a more fair relationship between faculty and administrators in the future.

“It’s been highly distracting and demoralizing,” Belkin said.