UMBC accused of breaching contract Professor says he lost chance to get tenure

February 13, 1996|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

An engineering professor is seeking about $8 million from the University of Maryland Baltimore County because, he says, officials vindictively canceled his contract promising a position that could lead to tenure.

Francis Moussy, a visiting professor of bioengineering at UMBC, filed a complaint Jan. 25 with the state treasurer's office against the campus; its provost, JoAnn E. Argersinger; and acting engineering Dean Gary Carter.

Dr. Moussy -- a Columbia resident -- alleges that because of "personal and professional jealousy," Dr. Argersinger and Dr. Carter returned $500,000 of a three-year $750,000 grant from the prestigious Whitaker Foundation that would have paid for his visiting professorship in bioengineering until the end of this year.

An August 1994 letter from the provost to Dr. Moussy, a French national, had promised him a permanent position after that time, he said. The permanent job would have given him an opportunity to earn tenure, an academic's near-guarantee of lifetime employment.

In late 1994, the state Higher Education Commission turned down UMBC's application for a graduate program in bioengineering. Provost Argersinger decided to return the grant last spring, saying the university would not be sufficiently able to carry out its terms.

Dr. Argersinger then canceled Dr. Moussy's contract, offering him instead a one-year extension on the visiting professorship with a salary of $56,000, according to documents filed by Dr. Moussy's lawyer, Columbia attorney James C. Strouse. Dr. Moussy took the offer, but told the provost in a letter that he did so under financial duress, because his wife was a doctoral student at the Johns Hopkins University and he needed the work.

University officials, including Dr. Argersinger, referred calls to Sara Slaff, an assistant state attorney general who has monitored this process for UMBC.

"The university's position is that Dr. Moussy was properly treated and every procedure was properly followed," Ms. Slaff said. "The university attempted to accommodate Dr. Moussy by extending his contract of employment through June 1996 to allow him to find a position elsewhere." That contract is not renewable, UMBC documents show.

Mr. Strouse argues that Dr. Argersinger is motivated by a desire to punish university administrators and faculty members who opposed her in her bid to become provost two years ago. Mr. Strouse also represents former engineering school Dean Duane F. Bruley, a bioengineering expert who had attracted the Whitaker Foundation to UMBC's campus. While Dr. Bruley has not filed suit against the university, Mr. Strouse alleges Dr. Argersinger singled Dr. Bruley out for sanction -- in part by not pushing the bioengineering program -- because he did not support her administratively.

In rejecting the program, the higher education commission said the university had failed to convince the commission that there was a demand from students that could not be adequately satisfied by the bioengineering programs at the University of Maryland College Park or the Johns Hopkins University.

Said Ms. Slaff, the state attorney: "We were very enthusiastic about this bioengineering endeavor, but when it was quashed and we saw the objections were substantive we thought it wouldn't be productive to pursue it. To reduce that to a personality dispute is not palatable."

A 10-member faculty grievance panel found in favor of Dr. Moussy in late fall, calling for him to be reinstated on a tenure-track position, immediately or on Jan. 1, 1997. The matter is expected to be aired today in the faculty senate.

The complaint is not yet in court: An allegation of wrongdoing against state officials must be filed in the state treasurer's office, attorneys said. The treasurer's office then has 180 days to investigate the claim. If the complaint is accepted by the state, it can be amended and then filed in court. No response from state attorneys is required or expected now.

The papers filed by Mr. Strouse allege breach of contract, tortious interference with a contract, and defamation of character. The complaint alleges that Drs. Argersinger and Carter told others that Dr. Moussy was an inferior professor with lesser credentials.

"Anybody who opposed Argersinger for that job, and there were many, got on her hit list," Mr. Strouse said. "Dr. Moussy was an unfortunate bystander."

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