A high-profile business professor is accusing Mount Allison University of reneging on a promise to give him a special deal to reduce his teaching load if he brought his academic star power to the idyllic New Brunswick school.
Steve Salterio is arguing in a lawsuit that Mount Allison president Jean-Paul Boudreau told him the dean of commerce could "make it happen" if Salterio abandoned his lucrative position at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.
But when Salterio received his course assignments in the spring of 2019, he discovered the university hadn't kept its word, and was now telling him his "pre-agreement" was worthless and he needed to file a union grievance.
"The action brought by Salterio is premised on the idea that he is special," the university argued in trying to get the lawsuit thrown out of court.
"Unfortunately, that is a self-assessment by Salterio that is not shared by anyone else."
Judge allows case to be heard
But Court of Queen's Bench Justice Fred Ferguson ruled last fall the case can go ahead, a decision upheld recently by the New Brunswick Court of Appeal.
Ferguson ruled that Salterio must be special indeed if Boudreau got personally involved in the negotiations to recruit him.
"It is doubtful, given the workload of a modern day university president, even at a mid-sized Canadian university, that there is time for the President to take on ad hoc the role of Human Resources Director," the judge wrote.
"It seems clear that high authority in the University must have thought Dr. Salterio was worth the significant efforts made to recruit him to the University."
The appeal ruling, rejecting Mount Allison's bid to throw out the case, means the lawsuit can continue and go to trial.
Salterio says the university's reneging on its agreement led him to withdraw from joining Mount Allison at great cost. He and his wife had already sold their home in Kingston and made an offer on one in Sackville, N.B.
His wife, Leslie Benecki, is also part of the lawsuit because she gave up a $101,000-per-year job at Kingston Community Health Centres to move to New Brunswick. Mount Allison tried and failed to have her claim thrown out as well.
"Mount Allison will not be commenting on this," spokesperson Laura Dillman said in an email Wednesday.
Salterio said Wednesday his lawyer advised him not to comment.
None of the allegations in the lawsuit has been proven in court.
Professor left $375K job to join Mount Allison
Salterio, a 1982 graduate of Mount Allison, is a well-known professor specializing in auditing and corporate governance at the Smith School of Business at Queen's.
His tenured position there and his role as editor of an academic journal were earning him $375,000 a year.
But after working as a consultant to help Mount Allison set up the Ron Joyce Centre for Business Studies, he stayed in touch with administrators and faculty. He eventually approached them about teaching there, despite a lower salary of $155,000.
"It seems that his interest in returning to Sackville was due in part to him entering the twilight of his career combined with the thought of returning to his educational roots," Ferguson wrote in his ruling.
Salterio began talking to Mount Allison in 2017 but made it clear he would only leave Queen's under certain conditions, including a lighter teaching load in his first two years.
He also wanted to only teach courses he had taught before during the first three years, and wanted funding to complete the final year of his three-year term as senior editor of the academic journal, according to the court decision.
Salterio says university promised special arrangement
After Salterio turned down an initial offer from Mount Allison, Boudreau, newly appointed as president, lobbied him to reconsider. So did university chancellor Lynn Loewen.
Negotiations continued and Salterio finally accepted a third offer based on what the judge called a "pre-agreement" struck with Boudreau during a three-hour meeting in August 2018.
In his lawsuit, Salterio says Boudreau stepped out to meet with Dean of Commerce Nauman Farooqi. When he returned, Boudreau said the dean, who had final authority on teaching assignments, "can make it happen."
But the following March, when Salterio received his teaching assignments, his course load included "two complicated courses he had never taught before that required a significant amount of preparation.
"Neither was on the list of eight courses the two sides agreed his teaching responsibilities would be drawn from."
Salterio warned the university he was on a house hunting trip in Sackville and if administrators were having second thoughts on the side deal, they should let him know because once he bought a house there would be "significant costs for them to get out of the deal."
Boudreau told him that he "would have to sort out his course assignment issues" with Farooqi. Salterio answered that he'd try but if that wasn't possible, he expected the university to honour the agreement.
Around the same time, Salterio sold his house in Kingston and put in an offer for one in Sackville.
Professor alleges 'negligent misrepresentation'
He offered to teach the two new courses if the university waived the requirement that he teach a third course, but Farooqi rejected that and told him the course assignments would not be changed.
At that point, Salterio decided he would not teach at Mount Allison and opted to sue for what he calls "negligent misrepresentation."
Salterio is arguing that on top of giving up his $375,000 income at Queen's, he lost research grants worth $100,000. He and his wife each say they lost $20,000 pulling out of the offer for the house in Sackville and $50,000 on the sale of their Kingston house.
Mount Allison argued in its court filing that Salterio couldn't sue the university because as soon as Salterio accepted the offer and signed a contract, he was part of the Mount Allison Faculty Association.
Any disputes have to be resolved under the union's collective agreement instead of in court, Mount Allison said.
But Salterio argued that his "pre-agreement" with Boudreau was struck before he took the job and became part of the union.
Ferguson sided with Salterio and said it was "reasonable to conclude" Boudreau misrepresented the school because Farooqi "did not follow through with what the President represented Dr. Farooqui (sic) would be prepared to do" to meet Salterio's conditions.
He also said there was "little evidence that the President did not act negligently" and it was "difficult to conclude" that Salterio's financial losses weren't the result of him taking Boudreau at his word.
Ferguson said a trial judge could rule either way in a final decision, but there was "cogent evidence" that Salterio would not have agreed to join Mount Allison without the pre-agreement.
The pre-agreement "addressed what must have been important to Dr. Salterio because it took all of three tries and intervention by the University Chancellor and the President to get a deal 'across the finish line,'" he wrote.
That meant the case should not be thrown out, a decision upheld by New Brunswick Court of Appeal Justice Raymond French in a March 23 ruling.