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Malta’s ‘American’ university fires nearly all its staff

It’s not every day that a university fires nearly all of its faculty. But that’s what happened 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 US, 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 to find letters giving them one week’s 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, although 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 at one point only one name – that of the provost – remained. (More names have since been added.)

“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 did so on condition of anonymity because of the wide-ranging confidentiality clauses in their employment contracts.

“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.

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 US 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, Professor Ryder. Yet Professor 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,” Professor 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.”

Professor Ryder said the university would have fewer faculty this spring than it did in the autumn. “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 enrolment.”

AUM seeks primarily to enrol 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, an MP 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.

“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.”

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 licence 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.

“We’re just getting ourselves off the ground,” said Professor Ryder, the provost, “and, you know,  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, Professor 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.”

 

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