Not So Fast

The Charleston School of Law says it can't afford to pay a tenured professor. But a judge is blocking her termination as her lawsuit works its way through the courts.

August 6, 2015
Nancy Zisk

The Charleston School of Law can’t terminate a professor of law it laid off last year -- at least not yet. A judge in Charleston, S.C., has signaled he will order an injunction against the termination of Nancy Zisk, a tenured full professor of law.

Zisk sued the school after it laid her off in May, saying it could no longer afford to pay her due to a financial crisis caused by declining enrollment and other factors. A memo notifying her of termination said she’d been selected due to her high salary. Six other tenured professors also received walking papers, allegedly with no prior notice. (A second terminated professor is challenging the college in a separate suit.) Their terminations followed an announcement by the school’s owners that it might have to close.

Zisk, who has been at the school since it opened in 2004 and tenured since 2009, alleges that the school declared financial exigency -- the only purely financial reason colleges might shed tenured professors, according to widely followed standards established by the American Association of University Professors -- “unilaterally” and without offering any proof.

She alleges that the law school was losing money due to financial mismanagement, along with declining enrollment, but was not in danger of shuttering immediately. Owners of the for-profit law school reportedly took $25 million in profits out of the school from 2010-13.

Zisk also asserts that she was pegged for termination due to her vocal opposition to the school’s proposed sale to InfiLaw System, a for-profit chain. The plan was widely opposed by the faculty and voted down by state regulators.

The terminations came just one week after Zisk and a majority of faculty members signed an open letter in Charleston's The Post and Courier linking the school’s decline to InfiLaw’s continued interest and other management decisions.

“What happened?” the faculty members wrote. “InfiLaw arrived. … Questioning this sale is certainly not in any faculty member’s best personal interest. As one Charlestonian quipped, we sure aren’t earning any ‘gold stars’ from the InfiLaw folks. But this cause has been too important for us to stand aside.”

Late last month, the law school filed a response to Zisk’s suit, opposing her request for an injunction against her immediate termination. The school denies Zisk’s claim that she was targeted for her opposition to the InfiLaw sale, saying that some colleagues who signed on to the open letter retained their jobs.

But that wasn’t enough to persuade the court. Zisk’s lawyer, Capers G. Barr III, told The Wall Street Journal that Judge R. Markley Dennis Jr. of Charleston County has indicated in writing to both parties that he’ll sign off on the injunction.

Dennis's law clerk, Lindsey Coffey, confirmed that report, saying that via email that the judge was expected to sign the injunction Thursday. (Note: This story has been updated to include a comment from Dennis's office.)

Zisk could be back teaching this year.

“It’s not about money for Professor Zisk,” Barr told The Post and Courier in a separate interview. “It’s all about her being restored to her status as a tenured professor.”

Barr did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Andy Brack, a spokesman for the law school, confirmed that it terminated seven professors last year but said it doesn’t comment on pending litigation.


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