Southern professor expects to be disciplined, says it’s unwarranted

“People have implied that I am responsible ... If it wasn’t for tenure, I would’ve already been fired by now. But I’ll tell you this, if they fire me, it will be a catastrophe for our students.” Diola Bagayoko, Southern University professor

Someone at Southern University is likely in trouble.

The school’s general counsel Tracie Woods said as much last week. But so far, the school’s top brass isn’t saying who is going to be on the receiving end of the discipline if it is found that employees helped a physics professor stay on the job undetected for two semesters after he was fired.

Southern board members didn’t say such an employee should be fired, but several said the university needs to come down hard on anyone that conspired to dupe the school’s administration and let a fired professor work under the radar.

One person mentioned is Diola Bagayoko, a highly regarded professor at Southern and chairman of the university’s Physics Department. He routinely helps students secure financial aid through research grants and he is also a frequent critic of Southern’s administration.

Bagayoko, last week, said he hasn’t done anything wrong but if anyone gets into trouble, he expects it to be him.

“I’m waiting for this discipline; I expect some discipline,” Bagayoko said. “People have implied that I am responsible. ... If it wasn’t for tenure, I would’ve already been fired by now. But I’ll tell you this, if they fire me, it will be a catastrophe for our students.”

The trouble can be traced back to October 2011 when enrollment declines and state budget cuts prompted Southern to declare a financial emergency, called exigency — in this case, a 20-month process that allowed the university leeway to cut academic programs and lay off tenured faculty.

Physics professor Dong Shen Guo was one of those professors let go. Southern mailed a termination letter to his Baton Rouge address in the summer of 2012. But the professor was in China and didn’t immediately get the notice. He later explained that he appealed his termination but did not hear back from Southern before school started.

So that fall, Guo showed up on campus and taught a full load of courses. He waited until the end of the semester before he contacted Southern’s Human Resources Department and asked to be paid for his services. The university subsequently paid him $20,000.

The next semester, spring 2013, Guo was back on campus teaching again. Southern’s administration found out after the fact, and again, agreed to pay Guo for his work.

And then Southern’s Board of Supervisors found out. Board members criticized campus leaders over the situation at their August meeting demanding to know how a fired professor can continue to work for two full semesters unbeknownst to the school’s administration.

Woods, the university’s attorney, explained the foul-up as an administrative oversight.

Guo was removed from the university’s payroll system, but not from the computerized faculty system known as Banner, which teachers access to learn their class schedules, she said.

She also placed some of the blame on faculty in a memo in which she writes: “The Physics Department knew Dr. Guo was terminated, but the Physics Department allowed Dr. Guo to work.”

Woods later said Southern’s chancellor “will also impose disciplinary actions at a later date.”

Southern University Chancellor James Llorens has largely kept mum on the issue only saying the university is currently looking at the situation and will later determine what steps to take.

Southern board chairwoman Bridget Dinvaut said she doesn’t know if anyone deliberately helped to keep Guo’s continued working a secret, but she is skeptical over the entire matter.

“I find it hard to believe someone would work and wait to get paid at the end of the semester,” Dinvaut said. “I find it very suspicious. If I didn’t get my paycheck, I’m going to be making phone calls. I don’t know why those phone calls weren’t made. If this was deliberate, I would say that it is highly inappropriate and that some adverse action would be warranted.”

Bagayoko, the physics chairman, expects those actions to fall onto him; but he said they would be unwarranted.

Bagayoko said the Banner system would automatically roll over a professor’s fall 2011 courses onto their fall 2012 schedule unless that professor is taken out of the system.

He said he learned Guo had received a termination letter one week before fall classes started. After talking to his colleague, he agreed to hand deliver Guo’s formal notice of appeal to the chancellor’s office on the Friday before school started.

Bagayoko said he next saw Guo on campus three days later.

“He was in class on Monday. He went online and saw his classes were there, all of them. I didn’t assign one class to him,” Bagayoko said. “A man who has tenure gets a letter. He appealed. The university did not get back to him. The university did not tell me anything.

“What right do I have to tell Dr. Guo not to teach the classes that were assigned to him? I don’t have any right. But, of course, one can claim the department chair is at fault,” Bagayoko said. “What irritates me is that if a faculty member has been fired, we are one week before classes and nobody has told me anything.”

Contrary to what Bagayoko expects, SU board member Leon Tarver said he doesn’t necessarily think anyone has to be punished. He said he thinks there could be an explanation that doesn’t involve any intentional wrongdoing.

“We have to look at the program and how it occurred. The question is why wasn’t the letter of termination entered into the system? Why wasn’t the professor taken out of the system? What failed in the system that didn’t allow the necessary paperwork to be executed?” Tarver said. “Obviously there is an inefficiency in the system that did not allow this to be detected.”