Education

Florida Memorial University Lays Off Four Tenured Professors, Discontinues 16 Degree Programs

The entrance to Florida Memorial University, a South Florida institution that dates back to the mid-19th Century.
The entrance to Florida Memorial University, a South Florida institution that dates back to the mid-19th Century. Screenshot via Google Maps
After being placed on yearlong probation in July by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), Florida Memorial University (FMU) is taking drastic measures to address financial issues in order to keep its accreditation for the fall 2022 semester — including discontinuing 16 degree programs and eliminating the positions of at least four tenured professors.

"I've never seen it happen before," attorney Randy Fleischer says of the latter move.

Fleischer is representing four tenured professors at FMU that were notified they'll be out of a job come May: Richard Yaklich, Abbass Entessari, William Hopper, and Telahun Desalegne.

"There was no cause for terminating any of them," the lawyer adds. "There was no discipline, no notice. It's just thank you, see you later, we're eliminating your departments."

After being sanctioned by the SACSCOC, the school — the only Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in South Florida — created the SACSCOC Task Force, a 12-member committee of faculty and administrators. In November, the school's board of trustees approved the group's recommendations to slash some salaries by 10 percent, discontinue less-popular degree programs, and eliminate certain faculty positions to address dire financial issues threatening the school's accreditation. At the time, FMU did not reveal which programs or positions would be eliminated, but for the most part, tenured professors felt their positions were safe.

That's because tenured faculty positions are indefinite appointments that were created to protect academic freedoms and keep professors from being fired for unpopular opinions they may have stated or published. According to the American Association of University of Professors, tenured professors "can be terminated only for cause or under extraordinary circumstances such as financial exigency and program discontinuation." According to Scott Jaschik, editor and cofounder of the publication Inside Higher Ed, being "immune from layoff in all but the most extraordinary circumstances" is one of the ultimate protections that come with tenure.

Sharee Gilbert, FMU's director of communications and marketing, tells New Times the decision to eliminate 18 positions — including staff, administrators, tenured and nontenured faculty, and vacant positions — was not an easy one. Sixteen degree programs in the Schools of Arts and Sciences, Business, and Education will also be discontinued. Gilbert says fewer than five students graduated with degrees from the discontinued programs, which include English, engineering/physics, mathematics, sociology, accounting, and marketing, over a five-year period.

"In order to protect the legacy and sustainability of FMU, these decisions had to be made. Data proved it to not be of benefit to keep faculty and staff on and to keep programs open that were underperforming," Gilbert said in a statement to New Times. "Decisions such as these are not easy to make...The decisions were a part of a data-driven process, which in turn created data-driven results and were not personal in any way."
click to enlarge An infographic listing the programs that will be discontinued at FMU - COURTESY OF FLORIDA MEMORIAL UNIVERSITY
An infographic listing the programs that will be discontinued at FMU
Courtesy of Florida Memorial University
In early February, the four tenured professors received notice that their "position is included in the program closure, effective May 14, 2022." Though the letters included a link to Florida's unemployment benefits website and the reemployment assistance hotline, the school never used the words "laid off" or "terminated."

"While we regret the hardships this will cause, great care and research went into this decision," states the letter addressed to Richard Yaklich, a tenured associate music professor. "This is a necessary step to strengthen our programs, regain financial stability, and stabilize enrollment." (A copy of the letter is embedded at the end of this article.)

Fleischer and the faculty members he's representing allege that the terminations violate FMU's handbook, in that they were issued without proper notice or cause. Fleischer argues that the positions were eliminated "under the guise of program closures" but were discriminatory because his clients are all in their 50s or 60s. He has filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on their behalf.

"This just this really hurts," says 57-year-old Richard Yaklich, who worked at FMU for 22 years. "And to be honest with you, to be my age — it's going to be very hard for me to even try to secure another position."

Yaklich was hired in 2001 as an assistant music professor and spent years working his way up to an associate professor role when he achieved tenure. He served on the school's board of trustees for four years as president of the faculty senate, which represents the faculty and "participates in the governance of Florida Memorial University in accordance with standards set forth by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the American Association of University Professors."

Yaklich says he had open disagreements with FMU President Jaffus Hardrick during board meetings and was always "very vocal" about issues at the institution. Now he believes his position was eliminated in retaliation for his prior complaints.

"To me, it really feels like some of the things that go on there — you're supposed to be on board with the president," Yaklich says. "And if you're not, then they don't want you there."
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Alex DeLuca is a staff writer at Miami New Times.
Contact: Alex DeLuca