Southern professor in dispute over job status

A physics professor Southern University fired in the spring of 2012 showed up on campus the following semester and continued working, teaching a full load of classes in the fall of 2012, apparently unbeknownst to university administrators.

The professor, Dong Sheng Guo, waited until the end of the semester before he contacted the university and asked to be paid for his services.

An attorney for professor Guo claims his client returned to campus in the spring of 2013, and taught classes again, although Southern officials disputed that part of the lawyer’s account.

On Friday, Guo’s boss asked Southern’s board if the professor could continue teaching when classes start Monday but didn’t get an answer. Southern University Chancellor James Llorens later ruled out that possibility.

Whether the situation was caused by a bureaucratic oversight or the perseverance of one particularly determined professor, Guo’s story sparked a round of muffled laughter from the audience during Southern’s Board of Supervisors meeting Friday and a number of different reactions from board members afterward, ranging from shock to bewilderment.

Guo’s attorney, Anthony Marshall, said his client was working in China last summer and had no way of knowing that Southern had mailed a notice of termination to his U.S. address.

Llorens said Guo knew he’d been fired before he returned to campus and started teaching again. “We believe he was legally terminated,” Llorens said.

Southern’s board didn’t take action Friday, choosing instead to hear Guo’s appeal to get his job back during the board meeting next month.

Southern fired Guo in May 2012 during a financial emergency. Declining enrollment coupled with fewer state dollars and rising benefit costs preceded Southern’s October 2011 declaration of financial emergency. Declaring exigency removes restrictions from downsizing staff and consolidating programs.

Under the terms of exigency, fired employees have a right to appeal their termination to a school’s administration, the university president and, finally, to the university board.

Marshall, the attorney, said his client didn’t receive the notice of termination until after he’d returned to the U.S. — two months after Southern’s exigency period had ended.

“He got back in August (2012) and he tried to get it straight with the school,” Marshall said.

In the meantime, Guo returned to his job on campus and was assigned five classes to teach. At the end of the semester, Guo went to Southern’s Human Resources Department and complained that he hadn’t been getting paid. The university subsequently paid him $20,000 for services rendered.

With the professor’s job status apparently unsettled, Marshall told Southern’s board Friday that Guo returned to campus for the spring 2013 semester, and again, taught a full load of classes. Marshall said Guo has yet to be paid for teaching in the spring semester, and has taken his case to court to get the remainder of his $69,000 salary paid and his job back. Southern administrators could not confirm Friday that Guo taught classes in the spring.

Southern’s Physics Department Chairman Diola Bagayoko, said Guo was allowed to teach because the department had not been told of the termination.

“Dr. Guo has always done the job he’s supposed to do, and he’s done it well,” Bagayoko said. “He’s never been fired. There was a plan to fire him but the letter was sent to a place where he was not. As chairman of the department, I was not copied.”

Llorens, Southern’s Baton Rouge chancellor, said it was a combination of a software issue and human error that led to Guo being given classes to teach during the fall 2012 semester, but disputed much of Guo’s account.

Llorens said Guo has been granted extra time to appeal his termination.

Pay supplements possible

Outside of Guo’s situation, there were a few bright spots during the board meeting. Southern System President Ronald Mason said he hopes to be able to give Southern faculty and staff one-time pay supplements in the coming weeks.

The Legislature, in June, granted Southern’s network of three academic campuses, law school and agricultural center $16.5 million to fill a budget hole, repair buildings and take care of other discretionary costs.

Mason said he is trying to set aside some of that money to give faculty and staff at Southern’s system office and Baton Rouge and Shreveport campuses a one-time $1,000 salary supplement after years of budget uncertainty and cutbacks.

Southern University at New Orleans Chancellor Victor Ukpolo said he is trying to find funds to give faculty and staff a 2 percent salary increase with an additional 1 percent salary bump to some employees based on merit.

Southern board Chairwoman Bridget Dinvaut was supportive of the idea.

“It’s important to at least discuss how we can at least elevate some of the pay,” she said. “Our people have not seen any increases in pay over a number of years.”