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Fired Far From Home

American University of Malta undertakes mass firings of faculty. The start-up institution, run by a for-profit company with no track record in higher education, has struggled to find students and is mired in environmental and political controversy in Malta.

January 9, 2018
 

It’s not every day that a university fires nearly all of its faculty. But that’s what happened last week at the American University of Malta, a start-up institution operated by a Jordanian construction and tourism company without a track record in higher education.

Some of AUM’s faculty had relocated to Malta from other countries, including the United States, lured by high salaries and the opportunity to build an American-style university in Europe from the ground up. But faculty at AUM opened their email last week to find letters giving them one-week notice that their employment would be terminated. Inside Higher Ed's sources confirmed that at least 12 of the university’s 13 full-time professors, not including the provost, John Ryder, a professor of philosophy, were fired, though it appears that at least one may have been rehired in an administrative position. All the names of faculty on the AUM website last week were deleted and as of Monday only one name -- that of the provost -- remained.

The faculty all had Ph.D.s, many from major research universities in the U.S.

“We’ve been getting ready for our classes,” one recently terminated faculty member said. Most former or current faculty or staff members who spoke to Inside Higher Ed spoke on condition of anonymity because of the wide-ranging confidentiality clauses in their employment contracts (more on that below).

“We were supposed to go back to class the 15th; Monday was supposed to start the semester. All of us believed that we had jobs, classes. Many of us had activities to orient new students starting next Friday and we learned yesterday or today that our contracts were terminated,” the faculty member said Thursday.

One recently terminated faculty member said the fact that faculty weren’t told before the end of the last semester about their impending terminations “is beyond comprehension. Had I known, I would have ended my lease on my home, packed up my bags, applied to other spring positions and moved back” to the faculty member's home country. Instead, the faculty member went home for the holidays expecting to have a job in Malta to return to.

“We were all led to believe we’d be hired next semester. If we hadn’t been led to believe that I’m sure we all would have made other arrangements and we all would have been more frugal. This is so wrong on so many levels.”

The terminations came as the faculty members approached the end of the six-month probationary period outlined in their contracts, after which it would be far harder for AUM to fire them. The latest terminations follow the dismissals of a number of staff members last year -- including officials directing core functions, such as admissions, marketing and human relations -- and the resignation of the dean of student affairs. Two dismissed staff members, the former director of admission and a former deputy project manager for the university, have filed protests of their dismissals in the courts, according to Maltese media accounts.

"One of my concerns," a former employee said, "is that other faculty and administrators from the U.S. will soon be recruited by AUM and unwittingly find themselves dismissed after six months for no reason, when they signed a three-year contract and turned their lives upside down to move halfway across the world, expecting to have a long-term position."

AUM, originally projected to be a 4,000-student university at capacity, has struggled to find students: it ended the fall semester with just 15 to 17 students, according to its provost, Ryder. Yet Ryder said the university is actively hiring.

He declined to answer questions about faculty terminations. “As a matter of policy we’re never going to talk about personnel actions, either specific or general,” Ryder said.

“We’re hiring faculty, which I can say, and a number will be here for the beginning of the semester, so that we get the spring term up and running as planned.”

Ryder said the university would have fewer faculty this spring than it did in the fall. “I had hired originally for a certain number of students and the incoming student body is much, much smaller, so we were way overstaffed,” he said.

“We’ll have a smaller faculty more appropriate to the size of the student body and we’re also hiring for next year, based on certain assumptions of enrollment.”

AUM seeks primarily to enroll international students. The AUM project has been highly controversial within Malta, in large part because it involves the leasing of protected public lands to the Jordanian company that is establishing the university, the Sadeen Group.

Members of Parliament voted by a 33 to 27 margin in December 2015 to transfer public lands to Sadeen Educational Investment Limited to build the university. Under the plans approved by Parliament and backed by the government of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, the university was to establish a first campus in the city of Cospicua followed by the construction of a second campus at Zonqor Point, on seaside land that had been protected from development.

Environmental groups oppose the planned development of the Zonqor Point site, where construction has not yet commenced. Last Tuesday, Karol Aquilina, a member of Parliament from the minority Nationalist Party and the opposition spokesman on the environment, introduced a motion seeking to undo the transfer of land to Sadeen and preserve it as part of a national park.

The motion, which was filed before news of the latest terminations, cites the low enrollment numbers and dismissals of some AUM employees. After a local Maltese news outlet posted an article about the mass faculty terminations last Thursday, Aquilina tweeted, "More proof, if it was ever needed, that @JosephMuscat_JM gave pristine public land at #Żonqor to Sadeen for purely speculative purposes. #SaveŻonqor."

The publication Malta Today published an editorial Sunday saying that the AUM project “appears to be unraveling” and arguing that the Zonqor campus project must be stopped before it is started.

“Clearly, it is not in the national interest to sell off prime, protected land to create a failed university,” the editorial says. “Indeed, losing such a large tract of virgin land would be unacceptable under any circumstances … even if the end product was an instant success. The country therefore deserves a proper answer as to why land [outside the development zone] at Zonqor Point was earmarked instantly, for the development of a mega-campus run by a company that has no prior experience in education.”

In addition to AUM, Sadeen runs Mayar International Schools, a K-12 enterprise in Jordan, according to its website. The company’s other areas of business are construction, real estate and tourism related. Officials at the company did not respond to written questions from Inside Higher Ed.

Some of the fired faculty members go so far as to speculate that AUM was intended to fail. As one of the ex-employees interviewed by Inside Higher Ed said, “Many suspect that it's a fake university set up to fail and eventually lead to a handover of beautiful coastal property for development of a hotel by Sadeen, whose main business is construction, not education.”

Some think that theory is far-fetched: after all, it costs a lot of money to start a university, even a troubled one, and the company’s land lease with the government is for the establishment of a university campus. But they question whether the university is being managed in a way that it could succeed.

“If it’s designed for success, they’re doing a really awful job, but if it’s planned failure they’re doing an awful job at that, too,” said one former employee.

“I would pretty much say the entire faculty across the board, we were all a little bit dubious as we started,” said a terminated faculty member. “The construction was incomplete and we had bad storms that flooded the whole building.”

“No one could understand why there weren't more students, why was the building not more complete, why was there not more recruiting and advertising, when all of us left our jobs, uprooted ourselves and moved halfway across the world.”

The employment contracts the faculty members signed with Sadeen when they arrived in Malta are atypical for higher education. They include multipage confidentiality agreements barring AUM employees from disclosing confidential information about the institution -- including “any data, information and materials relating to the business operations (including information relating to the academic part of the operations), commercial and financial activities relating, directly or indirectly and in any way whatsoever, to the AUM and/or Sadeen” -- for an indefinite period of time. Sadeen has also already shown an inclination to seek to enforce those confidentiality clauses by issuing cease and desist letters to former employees.

Bernard Gauci, who was briefly a finance professor at the university, received such a letter from Sadeen’s lawyer dated Dec. 6 accusing him of being “in clear violation of your obligations not [to] perform any activity or do anything contrary to the interest of or harmful to the company.” The letter called on him to “cease and desist” from disclosing “sensitive, confidential or false information related to the company to third parties,” or face threat of legal action from Sadeen.

Gauci was not an employee of AUM/Sadeen for long. He said his three-year contract started Aug. 16. Fall classes began Sept. 11. On Sept. 22, 11 days after classes started, Gauci said, he was called into a meeting with Ryder, the provost, and fired.

Gauci, who’s an emeritus professor of economics at Hollins University, in Virginia, said the conversation with Ryder “was entirely about my health and medical condition. I pointed out it was a temporary situation.”

“I was in pretty good health, but I had to undergo a surgical operation in July and my recovery was very slow from it, because of a pre-existing Parkinson's disease condition,” he said.

“I was told that I was not fitting in well in the dynamic nature of the department,” Gauci said. “They gave me the basic minimum required notice, one week, and I was unemployed, basically.”

Ryder declined to comment on Gauci’s dismissal, as did the chair of the business department at the time, Mark Neal, whom Gauci said was also in the meeting.

"I don’t think kicking an older person out the door for health reasons is acceptable whether in Malta or in the U.S.,” said Gauci, who was 66 at the time and has since turned 67. “AUM claims to be a liberal arts college, but it certainly doesn’t share or practice any liberal values.”

AUM bills itself as a "private, accredited, American-style liberal arts university in the heart of the Mediterranean." Since its establishment, some have raised the question of how “American” the American University of Malta really is.

The university is licensed to operate by Malta’s National Commission for Further and Higher Education. In granting the license to the university, the commission cited the university’s contractual relationships with two American institutions, Clemson and DePaul Universities, saying it was satisfied that the two institutions were “fit for purpose as [AUM’s] partners to support its initial years of development.”

The commission set multiple conditions for the university’s license, including the requirement that Clemson conduct a yearly audit of “the implementation and effectiveness of policies and procedures of the AUM in line with its Academic Plan, Quality Assurance Manual and other relevant documentation.”

Clemson has not commented on the developments at AUM. DePaul, which assisted with AUM’s curriculum development, said in a statement that the university “has no involvement with day-to-day operations of AUM.”

Malta's National Commission for Further and Higher Education did not respond to a request for comment about the terminations Monday.

“We’re just getting ourselves off the ground,” said Ryder, the provost, “and, you know, [there's] a lot of turmoil and twists and turns and financial issues and all that sort of thing going on. It’s hardly, shall we say, a clean process.”

Despite this, Ryder said the university was moving forward. “The spring semester will come off as planned; we’re recruiting students,” he said. “We’re recruiting for the fall, we’ll have new degree programs for the fall, we’re recruiting faculty, we’re recruiting administrators, directors of offices. We’re building and we’re growing.”

But not with the help of at least most of its founding faculty.

"If this school actually manages to make it, we came in, we developed the university, we did all these things," one of the terminated faculty members said. "They fired us all."

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