Aggrieved Former YU Economics Professors Seek Justice in Second Court Case

By: Sarah Casteel  |  November 16, 2017
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Unbeknownst to many Yeshiva University students and even faculty, just two years ago in 2016, two popular and well-known former professors, Dr. William Hawkins and Dr. Michael Richter, took the school to court. The court decision was made this past May 2017, and because the school has failed to take the necessary actions compelled by the court, the petitioners brought the university back to court just last month. While Richter now teaches economics at The University of London, and Hawkins now teaches economics at Yale, the two aggrieved professors continue to seek justice.

Hawkins and Richter were hired by Yeshiva University as tenure-track professors of Economics, “for an initial three year appointment commencing September 1, 2012 and terminating on August 31, 2015,” according to their court petition.  In 2015, the two professors, who had become quite popular amongst the students, were expecting to see the continuation of their tenure tracks. The economics department, to which both professors belonged, had grown substantially in previous years in response to the rise of economics majors in the school.  Both highly renowned and respected in the field, Richter and Hawkins were welcomed as popular additions to the economics departments in both Yeshiva and Stern College. This is why it was shocking to both the two professors, as well as many students, that the school chose to terminate their contracts.

In order to receive tenure, a professor must go through the tenure track program, which usually takes six to seven years.  After three years on tenure-track, the professor in consideration must go through a review process to continue on to the second half of the track.  The review process set forth in the University Faculty Handbook requires that first, the department itself must recommend the professors to be re-appointed to tenure-track.  According to the professors’ petition to the court, “The department unanimously recommended both petitioners for reappointment.” Then, the process moves to the relevant division, in which case, “In February of 2015, petitioner’s applications for reappointment were reviewed
by the Executive Committee of the Division of Social Sciences. The Executive Committee also
unanimously recommended both Petitioners for reappointment.”

The next step in the process is to receive approval from the deans for the relevant schools, Yeshiva College and Stern College.  However, before this happened, Provost Selma Botman, along with then President Joel, determined that the professors’ contracts would be terminated.  They then told Barry Eichler, Dean of Yeshiva College, to inform James Kahn, Chairman of the economics department, that the professors’ contracts would be terminated altogether due to financial strains. According to the recent petition submitted by the professors’ lawyer, Joshua Parkhurst, “By letters dated April 14, 2015, Provost Botman provided Petitioners with the sole proffered reason for denying them reappointment. Provost Botman confirmed in these letters that the denial of reappointment was not based on academic performance but rather ‘financial considerations.’ Specifically, Provost Botman advised petitioners that ‘Faculty in the Department of Economics were originally funded through partial gift income, and this funding is no longer forthcoming.’”  Botman did offer in the letter, as obligated by the Faculty Handbook, to grant the professors a paid sabbatical year as their terminal year, instead of requiring them to continue teaching at Yeshiva University.  Hawkins was granted a semester-long sabbatical leave for full pay, but Richter was granted a full-year sabbatical leave for only half his salary.  To both professors, this was not a satisfactory remedy.

Pursuant to the Faculty Handbook, an “aggrieved faculty member can ask a faculty review committee” to consider his or her situation.  The committee in fact agreed with the professors for several reasons, and in accordance with the Handbook, the President was then responsible to implement an “appropriate remedy.”  However, then President Joel claimed that he disagreed with the review committee’s determination, and that no further remedy would be implemented.  

The two popular professors, who were aggrieved and without jobs that they both depended upon and had fair reason to assume were secure, decided to take the case to court.  Again, Joel asserted that he followed the handbook, and that it was acceptable for him to decide that “no remedial action” was needed.  Petitioners Hawkins and Richter, represented by Joshua Parkhurst, claimed that Joel violated the guidelines in the Handbook by making the decision not to take remedial action.  

The court, which made its decision in May 2017, agreed with Hawkins and Richter that Joel was not authorized to determine that no remedial action was needed, and by making that decision, he violated the handbook. The court also continued by stating that the decision violated the guidelines in another way–financial considerations were not among the criteria for the third-year reappointment of tenure-track faculty.  However, because the handbook “did not expressly limit third-year review of tenure-track faculty to specific criteria, [that] deviation did not constitute a breach.”  Ultimately, the May 2017 court decision annulled Joel’s decision that no remedial action was necessary, and required that the school take the necessary remedial action.  

As explained by Parkhurst, while the judicial system is not directly able to consider the policies of a private institution in this way, the court was able to consider this case because of what is called an Article 78 proceeding.  Under this section of the law, any “body or officer” can be considered, and while it is usually used to challenge various determinations made by government agencies, it can also apply to private universities.  What this means is that the court can compel a university to follow its own rules, and in this case, Yeshiva University did not follow its own handbook.  When President Joel ignored his responsibility, determined by the handbook, to take remedial action, Hawkins and Richter had their case.

Unfortunately, a letter from Joel, written shortly before he stepped down at the end of May, revealed that the University was essentially continuing to avoid taking remedial action.  According to the letter, Joel would do three things: first, he would meet with relevant faculty bodies to clarify the handbook for any similar future situations; second, he reiterated that the professors had received a sabbatical for their terminal year (as essentially compelled by the handbook); and third, he stated that the professors would have priority consideration for any relevant job openings.  However, he did not specify what openings, if any, would be coming up; and thus far, there have not been any.  Thus, it is clear that proper remedial action was still not, in fact, taken.

This is why Hawkins and Richter have brought the case back to court. In the new suit, President Ari Berman was named, as he is now responsible to make the decisions and determine an appropriate remedy as Joel’s successor.  The case is pending, and all readers interested in updates can stay tuned as the case unfolds.  It remains to be seen if these two popular and aggrieved professors will receive the justice they deserve, and if the school will prove its dedication to upholding the policies set forth in its own Faculty Handbook.

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