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See https://www.ams.org/journals/notices/202302/rnoti-p196.pdf?adat=February%202023

The head of the Purdue math department set a tenured professor’s salary to 0. This seems very strange to me and I have two questions.

First, does this violate minimum wage laws?

Second, is this constructive dismissal?

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  • As a tenured professor he is almost certainly an exempt employee, which means his employer is exempt from most labor laws regarding his employment. Regarding minimum wage laws, if he is given zero work to do, they can pay him a salary of zero. That said, this looks bad for the university. Jan 24 at 17:01
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    Moreover, he was forbidden to teach math 262 until, among other deliverables, he produced written lectures for the whole course, “ready for delivery with no ad libbing”. No ad libbing? That's a Sisyphean task. It takes me hours to develop an hour's worth of training material, and that's without detailed documented notes. My charts contain just enough material for me to remember what to say and not look like a bumbling fool. Fully documented notes for a weed-out math course with every step of every proof fully described, plus intervening commentary, would add up to well over a thousand pages. Jan 24 at 17:19
  • The lecture notes the professor takes to class might simply say "walk through the proofs that the reals are a totally ordered group, and that every archimedean ordered group is an ordered subgroup of the reals". That's at least half of a lecture. Notes are easy (I just wrote them). Delivery is easy for those who know the subject, with one key exception: Handling questions from students, and that inherently requires ad libbing. Filling those lecture notes out so that "no ad libbing is required" is anything but easy. It's impossible. The department was out to get this guy. Jan 24 at 17:37
  • As an aside, algebra is the class one takes in college after having taken three semesters of calculus. It is not an easy class. I pulled out my ancient algebra text to find an example I vaguely remember from taking that class multiple decades ago. Jan 24 at 17:41

3 Answers 3

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Without commenting on the relatively strange situation itself, it is still useful to actually read what was actually said than what was described in a letter from a third person, even if the relayed information is technically true.

The supposed basis for the claim of a zero salary is from an email allegedly sent by the department head (appendix 15):

In short, you are not teaching in 2022/2023 and you have not submitted the required outline of your research or other engagement. I am very sorry that we cannot establish that you will be doing any work expected of a faculty member. Thus we cannot pay you. Starting with the Fall semester, your pay will be reduced to zero and you will be placed on unpaid personal leave.

Essentially, the professor is being put on an unpaid leave because allegedly he is not doing any work. Consequently, minimum wage laws are not engaged even if the professor is not exempt as teachers since he is not being required to do any work.

In the U.S., employers generally can do this (unless a work contract provides otherwise); in many circumstances, it is called being laid off (though the term has attracted a permanent connotation in parts of North America) or being suspended.

An indefinite unpaid leave can be considered constructive dismissal if the employer does not reasonably allow the employee to return to work. It may not be constructive dismissal if the unpaid leave is prescribed by binding employer policies or because the employee refuses to work (and the employer allows the employment relationship to continue). Even if it is constructive dismissal, it is not automatically wrongful.

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    In the US an indefinite unpaid leave is called a furlough.
    – Barmar
    Jan 23 at 15:07
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    A 'normal' employer would be expected to provide an employee with work to complete - being unable to prove that work is being done would generally be regarded as a failing of the next layer of management - am I missing something here?
    – MikeB
    Jan 23 at 15:27
  • @MikeB, tenured professors are not 'normal' employees. They've got a great deal of independence, and many special rules apply to them (for example, they mostly can't be fired).
    – Mark
    Jan 24 at 1:13
  • @MikeB Many professional occupations, including college professors, do not work like that. A lawyer in a law firm is required to generate billable hours, and a doctor is paid a percentage of their billings. College professors are required to have a minimum workload comprising of teaching, research, and administration. In many schools, there is a formal system comprising of a minimum number of units (FTEs, time-base), that have to be filled by teaching classes, student advising, funded research, administration (department chair, serving on committees), and sabbatical time.
    – user71659
    Jan 24 at 2:06
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This does indeed look like a constructive dismissal. Whether his offenses are serious enough to dismiss a tenured professor for cause is unclear.

If they have banned him from teaching any courses, however, as it appears that they have, I'm not sure if it would violate minimum wage laws as there are no hours in which he is required to work.

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The university has an official policy regarding termination of faculty. Though he is listed as a Profesor (not Assistant Professor), that only probably implies tenure – I will assume that he has tenure. The employment contract (which may and often is only implicit) will point to a vague assignment of duties that follow having the appointment. A person appointed to a faculty position receives a salary for the duration of the appointment – it is not an hourly job. Therefore, the university has a legal obligation to pay the faculty person for the duration of the appointment.

A tenured professor's appointment is "for life", or until terminated either by the employee, or according to the above rules, is terminated by the university. There is a formal procedure that must be followed, and failure to follow the procedure is pretty much the only way that a de-tenuring and firing decision will be overturned by the courts (violation of discrimination law is the other main way). The procedure does not allow the department chair to fire a faculty member. There is no indication that the required termination hearing was held.

It would be constructive dismissal to reduce an employee's salary to zero; dismissal without following university policies and procedures would be wrongful.

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