University Could Fire Professor Who Had Already Retired

By Joanne Deschenaux October 30, 2019
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University Could Fire Professor Who Had Already Retired

A university could lawfully dismiss a retired university professor under the terms of its academic-employee manual, a California appeals court ruled. The court reversed a trial court ruling that the university had no authority to fire the professor after his retirement.  

The professor taught finance at the university before submitting a notice of intent to retire, effective Jan. 1, 2012. He retired on that date, but on Jan. 18, 2012, the university regents fired him.

The professor filed a lawsuit, claiming that the termination was invalid and seeking to have it set aside. He claimed that he was damaged by the dismissal because he was obligated to inform potential employers that he had been terminated from employment, even though he retired prior to the termination.  

Following a hearing, the trial court ruled for the professor, holding that the regents' decision to dismiss him was void. The university appealed.

Is a Retired Professor Faculty?

The court first noted that the only question raised in the appeal was whether the regents had the authority to dismiss the professor from employment despite the fact that he had already retired.

The answer, the court said, depended on the extent the term "faculty," as defined in the academic-employee manual, included retired faculty, because only faculty members were subject to the outlined disciplinary procedures.

The court's analysis focused on two sections of the manual: one that defined "faculty" and other terms, and a second that set out the university's policy on disciplining faculty.

A faculty member was defined as an academic appointee who had independent responsibility for conducting approved, regular university courses for campus credit. For those who were faculty, the types of discipline that could be imposed were written censure, reduction in salary, demotion, suspension, denial or curtailment of emeritus status, and dismissal from employment. "Emeritus" is a title given to retired college professors.

The court concluded that interpreting "faculty" to include a retired professor was reasonable.

First, the court said, the manual clearly contemplated that at least some retired faculty were subject to discipline, because it listed "denial or curtailment of emeritus status" as a means of discipline, and the regents could not curtail a faculty member's current emeritus status unless that faculty member had already retired and been given emeritus status. The manual thus contemplated that, even in retirement, faculty could be subject to discipline, the court said.

Second, the court said, defining "faculty" broadly would further the regents' goal, as stated in the manual, of "preserving conditions hospitable to the pursuits" of "teaching, learning, research and public service." The court noted that in Smith v. Regents of University of California in 1993, the California Supreme Court stated that, to be effective, the regents "must have considerable discretion to determine how best to carry out the university's educational mission." The ability to dismiss a faculty member, even after retirement, and so signal to others that the university has severed all ties with the faculty member, falls within such discretion, the court said.

The court ruled that the university had the authority to dismiss the retired professor.

Khoury v. Regents of the University of California, Calif. Ct. App., No. E071050 (Sept. 9, 2019).

Professional Pointer: Even after retirement, faculty members may maintain a formal relationship with a university in ways not seen in other employment contexts. For example, despite formal retirement, faculty members may still participate in departmental meetings, and some may be recalled to the university to teach.

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is a freelance writer in Annapolis, Md. 

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