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Most professors have individual contractual bargaining power at only two points in their careers: upon accepting a new job or with an outside offer in hand. And to recruit or retain talented professors, administrators in such negotiations often agree to perks they otherwise wouldn’t -- more money, course relief here, additional research funds there. But a group of faculty members at San Francisco State University alleges that the institution is backtracking on some of its contractual promises to them, and offering shaky rationales for doing so.

“That’s the lesson I’ve had to share with colleagues around the country -- be careful coming here, because the administration is not of the opinion that agreements they’ve entered into are binding,” said Samuel McCormick, associate professor of communication studies and one of four faculty members who’ve gone public with their claims of breach of contract.

The professors allege there are more among their ranks, and they’re this week asking San Francisco State’s Academic Senate to consider a campus policy proposal prohibiting the breaching of agreements.

The university says that it’s aware of some of the claims and is working to resolve them on a case-by-case basis.

“This has been very painful, demoralizing and diversionary,” said Aaron Belkin, a professor of political science at San Francisco State and director of the Palm Center, a think tank devoted to the study of gender, sexuality and the military. He hopes the policy proposal against further backtracking on contracts will help end the two-year legal battle he’s waged against the university -- one he said he’s financed only by taking out a line of credit on his home.

Employees generally can’t sue their employers for punitive damages for breach of contract, so Belkin’s fight isn’t about money. He and other professors also say they realize that as tenured professors at a public institution in a vibrant city, they’re in a place of relative privilege in academe. But they say they’re advocating for basic fairness and for institutions to honor their obligations to employees under the law. Some also allege intimidation by administrators.

Belkin’s story is illustrative of his colleagues’. He was an associate professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, until 2009, when he was recruited by San Francisco State. Although he enjoyed working within the University of California System, Belkin relished the opportunity to move to San Francisco State, in part because of its explicit commitment to social justice. Yet because he enjoyed a reduced teaching load in Santa Barbara to support his research roles, he needed a similar agreement in San Francisco to make the move work.

He negotiated back and forth with Joel Kassiola, the former college dean, who agreed to the following term: in support of his work at the Palm Center, Belkin would receive a course relief and the ability to buy out two of his courses per year, reducing his teaching load from San Francisco State’s six-course-per-year standard load to three.

“I totally understand that many people would die to teach a full load -- I’m not a victim in that sense,” Belkin said. “But if I’d known I’d have to teach six courses a year, it would have been a nonstarter. I just wouldn’t have come.”

San Francisco State honored Belkin’s agreement for five years. Then, after the arrival of some new administrators, the university said the arrangement was no longer valid and that he wouldn't qualify for a permanent course relief or be able to buy out his courses. Belkin met with President Les Wong, who allegedly said, “I don’t care what you were offered by my predecessor.”

Belkin is currently teaching a full load and leading the Palm Center. As result, his research agenda is stalled.

Administrators have offered Belkin various, shifting reasons as to why his contract can’t be honored, including that the center is technically an independent research organization. So allowing Belkin to continue to buy out his courses would constitute an illegal “gift” paid for with public funds, they’ve said.

That explanation didn’t hold weight with William Lockyer, a former California attorney general, who wrote as a “concerned citizen” to Wong that the university has much to lose in the way of recruiting and retaining talented faculty members if it doesn’t honor contracts. Lockyer noted that Belkin left a position at a high-ranking institution in exchange for a “permanent commitment to confine his teaching obligations to single semester,” and he said that meeting a contractual obligation cannot be construed as a gift under state law.

Belkin has filed a grievance, and an on-campus hearing is scheduled for next month.

McCormick came to San Francisco State from Purdue University in 2012. In so doing, he negotiated with Paul Sherwin, another former dean, a reduced teaching load of four courses per year for five years, along with annual research support and supplemental travel funds. His new institution honored the contract for four years, but, like Belkin, he was suddenly told the university could no longer offer him the teaching reduction. The research and travel funds also have been revoked, he said.

“As I mentioned numerous times … the university requires you to teach the college course load,” Daniel Bernardi, interim dean, wrote in an email to McCormick after his chair requested approval for a course release (the chair wrote that because departmental courses are four units each, the standard teaching load is five courses per year). “Please refrain from making additional requests to your chair. I will not approve a release for fall,” Bernardi said.

McCormick says that the university has claimed it couldn’t offer him more than what was included in the California Faculty Association contract. But the union doesn't object to the university enhancing contract agreements, he said, just not meeting basic terms.

Marc Stein, the Jamie and Phyllis Pasker Professor of History at San Francisco State, was recruited from York University, in Canada, in 2014. The first sign of contract trouble was when the university didn’t honor a moving reimbursement agreement, he said, such that he was taxed on a $13,000 payment that was eventually delivered as a summer stipend. Second, the university attempted to backtrack on a promise Sherwin made in Stein's 2014 offer letter that he'd be able to take leave in his fourth year without teaching obligations. The letter says that Wong and the provost had agreed to the deal, and that Stein retained the rights to apply for a normal sabbatical in his seventh year.

Stein said he’s been able to persuade the university to honor terms that are roughly equivalent to what he was promised, but only after challenging the university's demand that he teach online during his upcoming leave.

“If you disagree with something that a previous dean signed, renegotiate, but you’d have to offer equivalent or improved terms,” Stein said. He noted he'd been told that the plan going forward is to have the provost and eventually the president -- not deans -- sign new agreements. Yet deans on many other campuses lead contract negotiations.

David Landy, an associate professor at San Francisco State, received an outside employment offer in 2013. Administrators offered him a retention package, but he says they only honored it for one year.

In addition to the policy proposal, Belkin has launched an initiative to research the scope and nature of what he calls faculty mistreatment at San Francisco State, beginning with a survey he’ll soon send to 800 professors.

Sherwin said he knew of three of the public cases and was aware of a fourth. But he said he couldn’t comment further, due to a pending legal claim. 

J. Elizabeth Smith, university spokeswoman, said Wong and the university counsel are aware of three breach of contract claims. “The university has been in discussion with several faculty members regarding their work schedules and perceived commitments made by prior administrations,” she said via email. “Each situation is unique and will be addressed on a case-by-case basis. The university hopes to resolve these issues in a way that serves both the interests of the faculty members and the academic needs of the university’s students.”

As to why contracts are now being breached, after being honored for years, some noted the departure of Sherwin from the university. San Francisco State, like many public institutions, has suffered from budget cuts. Administrators also allegedly have referenced in recent years a 1977 decision by the Supreme Court of California reiterating that public employment is held by state statute, not by contract, but the case dealt with pension and mandatory retirement issues at a state office.

Belkin said he believes that administrators are banking on the fact that faculty members don’t have the time or means to pursue legal action, with no hope of damages. But it’s about more than that, he said.

“All of us feel that if the university had a blanket policy of never offering these agreements to anyone, that would be one thing,” he said. “But not only do they use them, they use them aggressively for retention and recruitment.”

Belkin added, “This is very, very embarrassing for us. None of us is used to this terrain. But this is where we are.”

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