Two former tenured professors have sued the Phoenix School of Law and the company that owns it, claiming that they were improperly fired after raising concerns about what they called a drive for profits at the expense of students and faculty.
Michael O’Connor and Celia Rumann, who are married to each other, filed suit on Friday, less than two weeks after each was informed that they would not return during the next academic year. They had refused to sign appointment letters that the professors alleged violated the school’s own tenure rules and fell short of the required job protections. They filed their complaint in U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona.
Their complaint paints a picture of a for-profit law school that emphasizes the interests of investors over the needs of students or the faculty’s academic freedom.
"Defendants have repeatedly violated ABA Standards 404 and 405 by threatening to and expelling professors, such as Professors O’Connor and Rumann, who challenge Defendants’ actions with respect to students, curriculum, and faculty governance and have questioned whether the actions were in the interests of students and faculty and based on sound education objectives or driven by economic interests," the complaint reads.
A spokeswoman for Phoenix had no immediate comment. The professors’ attorney, Michelle Swann, declined to comment.
The complaint alleges that InfiLaw Corp, which owns Phoenix, the Charlotte School of Law and Florida Coastal School of Law, has sought to oppose tenure and reduce the role of faculty in running their institutions. During 2011, Phoenix unveiled two proposals for dealingwith students and faculty dubbed "Legal Ed. 2.0." That program "resulted from Defendants’ belief that they needed to ‘rebrand’ the school and ‘build a better mousetrap’ to prevent the school’s students from transferring to more highly ranked law schools."
In 2012, Phoenix President Scott Thompson told law school employees that 18 percent of the first-year students who enrolled during 2011 had transferred to competing law schools, according to the complaint. Phoenix began requiring students considering transfers to meet with an administrator before it would release their transcripts.
Additionally, administrators discussed refusing to write recommendation letters for transfer students; reordering mandatory first-year classes to render them incompatible with other law schools; and adopting a pass/fail grading system for 1Ls to prevent competitors identifying top students, the complaint alleges.
On the faculty side, the law school’s proposal "was geared at reducing or ultimately eliminating tenured faculty because investors would look more favorably upon a school with fewer or no tenured faculty," according to the complaint.
The document alleged that professors had no opportunity to weigh in on the changes to faculty evaluations and committee service, but did vote on the proposed curricular changes. The faculty narrowly rejected the changes in December 2012, but were overruled when Dean Shirley Mays interpreted ballots that contained limited support for certain provisions as full approval.
On May 3, O’Connor and Rumann received "appointment letters" covering their next year of employment, which were different than the contract forms the school previously used. They contend that the new letters excluded key provisions including the dates of their employment and their job titles, so they returned earlier versions of the documents. They next received letters on May 20 declaring that their employment would end on May 31 because they had not signed the new appointment letters.
"Professors O’Connor and Rumann were pretextually terminated in retaliation for, among other things, voicing opposition to Faculty 2.0 and Program 2.0, and Defendants desire to eliminate tenure," the complaint reads.
O’Connor and Rumann allege breach of contract and of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. They seek at least $75,000 in damages.
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