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Disputes about unpaid wages renew questions about oversight of Italian university chartered by New Hampshire

On Whose Watch?
November 22, 2013

A college in Italy chartered by the state of New Hampshire and authorized by the state’s Higher Education Commission to operate is once again in hot water for allegedly failing to pay its employees. St. John International University has faced more than a dozen legal complaints over unpaid wages in its five-year history, the latest of which were filed this fall by five former employees in conjunction with the Federation of Knowledge Workers (FLC CGIL) union.

Among the complainants, Silvia Duchi, a former professor of English who resigned Oct. 1, said the last paycheck she received was for January. The same goes for Mariachiara Guerra, a former professor and chair of the department of architecture and planning, who resigned Sept. 19, having last been paid, in July, for a portion of January’s wages.

For months the former employees had worked in hopes they would eventually get paid: even in comparatively flush times at SJIU, they say, they were habitually paid late. But in July, when Guerra saw SJIU employment ads posted on an Italian equivalent of Craigslist – including an ad for a professor in the department she chaired – she said she saw the writing on the wall. “They started looking for other professors, other employees, without saying anything to us,” she said. “We started to ask for our money.”

Even as these new disputes are pending, three longer-standing legal claims from former employees remain unresolved. Former employees Mary Beth Benbenek, Tom Johnson and Patricia Parpajola wrote to the commission this fall to report that their lawyers had been successful in freezing two of the university’s Italian bank accounts, which, they wrote, collectively  contained €7,000, or about $9,475 – substantially less than the more than €20,000, or $27,000, in court-ordered back pay and damages that they say is owed them. The trio wrote that they are in the process of identifying whether SJIU has opened additional bank accounts beyond these two, in which case they will attempt to freeze those as well.

“It is difficult to imagine how SJIU could be operating while its bank accounts are frozen,” they wrote the director of the Higher Education Commission in an Oct. 3 email obtained by Inside Higher Ed via an open records act request.

The pattern that has emerged regarding unpaid wage disputes – including one involving the university’s former president, George J. Hagerty, which has been resolved – raise questions about the financial soundness of the institution and the level of oversight by its regulators across the Atlantic. The university’s approval by the New Hampshire Higher Education Commission was extended in May for a one-year term despite the trail of legal complaints, which at that point were well-documented. A report prepared by a site visit team and publicly released at the Commission’s March meeting documented a total of eight complaints from former employees that had been filed against the university at that point, three of which had been settled. The team, which visited the university last December, also identified concerns regarding high administrative turnover and the financial fragility of the institution. 

“Certainly, it’s of concern,” said Richard A. Gustafson, the director of New Hampshire’s Higher Education Commission, when asked about the pattern. “We’ve expressed that to the university, and they have worked on this, I think diligently. A number of the items have been cleared,” that is, resolved.

“We just need to let these matters play themselves out,” Gustafson continued. “We don’t know, if you will, the merits of both sides of the issue. We just need to let the courts and the lawyers figure that out.”

New Hampshire is one of a small number of states that are in the business of chartering or incorporating overseas universities. In extending SJIU’s approval to grant degrees through June 30 of next year, New Hampshire’s Higher Education Commission required two progress reports, one which was due Nov. 1 – a version of which will be made public at the commission’s December meeting, Gustafson said – and one due March 1. The commission will also conduct a site visit in the spring.

Gustafson said he did not follow up with the university regarding Benbenek, Johnson and Parpajola’s emails regarding their ongoing legal battles and the frozen bank accounts. “We will get their audited financial statements as part of the March 1 report and that will include a balance sheet, operating sheet and cash flow statement,” he said. “We will see, or the commission will see, the financial condition of the university at that time.”

The Condition of the Institution

St. John International University, a self-described “American university,” is a for-profit institution that was founded by an Italian businesswoman, Lorenzina Zampedri, and chartered by New Hampshire by legislation sponsored by State Senator Lou D’Allesandro, a Democrat. D’Allesandro used to sit on SJIU’s board, which also includes State Senator Nancy Stiles, a Republican and chair of the Senate Health, Education and Human Services Committee, and, until recently, the Rev. Jonathan DeFelice, president emeritus of Saint Anselm College.  (Rev. DeFelice said via email that he had visited SJIU for his last meeting as a board member in September, when he “found the university to be stronger than ever.”)

D’Allesandro resigned from the board earlier this year. “I was told that all of these financial concerns had been taken care of and then I got wind that they weren’t and that bothered me, to be honest with you,” he said, adding that he was going to separate from the board anyway because of a lack of time to devote to it. He wishes SJIU well, he said, but the institution was going in a direction he didn’t like.

“I’m a little disappointed,” said D’Allesandro, a former college president himself. “I told them when they visited me initially….I said it’s costly to start a university. You’ve got to have fairly significant financial resources. I don’t think they paid particular attention in the long run to that conversation.”

Throughout his time on the board, he said, “My comments to them always were, 'You’re underfunded; you need more capital.' They always said they were going about getting more capital.…It was the refrain. They’re always pursuing investors.”

“Pursuing investors and gaining investment, they’re two very different phraseologies,” D’Allesandro said.

Others paint a rosier picture. In a press release issued in October after the FLC CGIL Union sponsored a protest outside the university, current employees took issue with the way SJIU is being portrayed. The press release is signed as being from “The ACTUAL employees of SJIU” (as opposed to ex-employees).

“SJIU['s] environment is completely different from the one described by the former SJIU employees,” says the press release. “Every morning each one of us chooses to come to our place of work where we all feel that there are few or no economical issues.”

In a statement that is inconsistent with the image of the university one would get from ex-employees who have sued the university, the press release goes on to say that “SJIU is represented by employers who always use transparency, honesty and loyalty as determinant values in their relationships with every employee. They always take responsibility for each one of us and of our families, and they always compile (sic) their obligations without running away from them, which is different than what many other companies do in these difficult times, leaving many employees and their families without work.”

Davide Dabbene, the business development coordinator at SJIU who identified himself as the spokesman on these issues when Inside Higher Ed called the main university line in Italy, praised SJIU for offering open-ended contracts in a poor economy. “Having an open-ended contract and a fixed salary and a good and stable position, it’s very rare,” said Dabbene. When asked, he said that he is getting paid every month and on time.

"To be honest with you, I don’t know the situation of the former employees, but as a representative of all the other 40 employees, I can tell you that everything is on track and all the payments are up to date," he said.

Dabbene said that the protests on the part of former employees are a distraction from the good work the university is doing. He cited, by way of example, recent special events like a film festival and a lecture by an astrophysicist, and the “countless” partnerships SJIU has with other universities.

But the partnerships claimed with U.S. universities, at least, don’t stand up to scrutiny. Inside Higher Ed called all of the universities SJIU lists as partners in the U.S. Spokespeople for three of these institutions – California State University at Long Beach, Plymouth State University, and the University of New Hampshire – said that they had previously had agreements with SJIU but those agreements had expired or been dissolved. (To this, Dabbene said that  “for us an agreement is broken when there is an official statement from the university saying they don’t want to be our partner any more.") A spokesman for the College of Idaho, which advertises a dual degree program with SJIU in environmental architecture on its website, said that the partnership is under review and that there are no students in the program. (Dabbene said that the College of Idaho partnership is merely in the process of being implemented.)

The New Hampshire Institute of Art, which is also listed on SJIU's website as a partner, did not respond to multiple requests for information on the status of the partnership placed with its designated media contact. Only Fort Hays State University, in Kansas, confirmed the partnership was still active, although Carol Solko-Olliff, the director of international student services, said that no students studied abroad there this fall and none are scheduled to next semester.

By all accounts, SJIU is tiny: two Fort Hays students who studied at SJIU last spring estimated that the total number of students was 25-30, tops. Dabbene, at SJIU, said there are currently about 100 students, and that an issue of confusion is that the college’s certificate students do not take classes with the undergraduate and graduate students. In its May report to the New Hampshire Higher Education Commission, obtained via an open records act request, SJIU reported 124 students for spring 2013, including 42 certificate students, 65 undergraduate students, two exchange students, seven study abroad students and eight graduate students. 

The Wage Claims

SJIU's U.S.-based lawyer, James J. Bianco, Jr. – also a member of the university's board – sent via email information that he said the university recently reported to the New Hampshire Higher Education Commission regarding the unpaid wage claims filed by Benbenek, Johnson and Parpajola (the trio that reported freezing the university’s accounts).   In the cases of Benbenek and Johnson, the university said that it was initially maintaining the payment plan agreed to with their attorneys but then stopped payment to pursue them “for the defamations made in the meantime. SJIU is now trying to obtain the signature of a non-disparagement agreement.” Bianco also said that the university is pursuing Parpajola for defamations and “is waiting to receive its material back in order to proceed with the payment.”

Beyond sending an email containing the above information, Bianco did not respond to multiple calls and emails seeking an interview about these cases and others.

Johnson declined to comment for this article, but both Benbenek and Parpajola objected to SJIU's characterization of their cases. In an email statement Benbenek wrote, in part, “The statement you quoted to me as made by SJIU is completely false.  SJIU has no defamation claim against me. This matter has been fully and finally litigated by the Italian courts who have conclusively determined that SJIU breached my employment contract and a judgment was entered in my favor and against SJIU.  Moreover, as of July 2013, SJIU has failed to honor the payment schedule it proposed and agreed to and since then collection efforts to enforce and execute on the judgment have been pursued.”

Parpajola also described SJIU's characterization of her case as false, saying that there is no defamation case against her -- and "no grounds for such a claim." She said she has a receipt for the return of SJIU's property, which the university cites as the holdup in paying her, from October 2011. In January of this year she won an Italian court judgment for €15,000, or more than $20,000 – an amount the university confirmed – but has not yet been paid. The pay is for work performed January to June of 2011, more than two years ago.

Meanwhile, as for the five newer disputes filed through the FLC CGIL union, the university's coordinator of legal and administrative affairs, Raffaele Borrelli, said -- through Dabbene, who acted as a translator -- that the university had proposed a settlement to pay the former employees the wages they are due in two installments, in December and January, but has yet to receive a response from the union. (Dabbene provided a copy of SJIU's settlement offerwith the information about the total amount of pending salary for the former employees deleted.) The union representative did not reply to written questions from Inside Higher Ed about the status of the dispute.

"The question is, how can an American university work like this?” said Duchi, the former SJIU English professor. “How can the American authorities accept this and not intervene in any way?”

In addition to the complaints filed by former professors Duchi and Guerra, Matteo Gimorri, the internal auditor until he resigned Sept. 30, is claiming unpaid wages dating to February, as is Giuliano Stellini, the director of the information technology department until he was terminated Sept. 7. Gianfranco Piana, an instructor on contract for the fall 2012, said he was not paid from Oct. 30 until Dec. 15 (at which point his contract expired, and he did not return to teach in the spring).

“Would they [the commission] let this happen in one of the schools in New Hampshire?” asked Anne Blake, another former employee of SJIU who settled her wage dispute with the university earlier this year. “Obviously they wouldn’t let it happen, but out of sight out of mind. I don’t know why they’re not doing their due diligence with this school that’s giving American higher ed such a bad reputation.”

 

 

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