Ex-prof sues UofL, alleges fraud, breach of contract

Matt Bohm

A former assistant professor at the University of Louisville says the institution committed fraud when it offered him employment with incentives it knew it could not afford.

Matt Bohm, a former assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UofL’s J.B. Speed School of Engineering, has filed a lawsuit against UofL, accusing the institution, a former department chair and a retired dean of breaching his contract and making fraudulent misrepresentations when they hired him.

As a result of the university’s actions, Bohm claims, he was denied tenure and had to leave the university.

The university told Insider via email that it does not comment on pending litigation or personnel matters, but it has filed a motion to dismiss the case. The court has yet to rule on that motion.

Bohm was recruited to the university in early 2010 by Glen Prater, chair of the mechanical engineering department and Mickey Wilhelm, dean of the Speed School.

Bohm, a native of Carthage, Mo., said he was on a non-tenure track at Oregon State University in 2009 when he applied to about 20 schools, including UofL.

He interviewed with UofL, visited Louisville, liked the city and accepted a “reasonable” offer of employment.

According to the lawsuit, filed in Franklin County, university officials recruited Bohm with a contract offer they knew they could not fulfill. The offer included critical resources, including laboratory space, three-year support for a doctoral student and a university fellow — though other documents from around the time indicate the department had no funds to pay for the doctoral students, the lawsuit asserts.

Bohm told Insider that help from a doctoral student is critical to conducting research, writing proposals and gathering data — and ultimately to the professor’s performance reviews and obtaining tenure.

“The Ph.D. students are critical to everything you do,” Bohm told Insider.

Both Prater and Wilhelm “knew the representations regarding (doctoral) student support … were false (and) misleading,” the lawsuit alleges, and made those representations “intentionally and recklessly … or engaged in these acts and omissions … to deceive” Bohm into taking the position.

J.B. Speed School of Engineering. | Courtesy of UofL

The university’s fiscal struggles at the time, at the height of the recession, are well-documented: The university said that between 2002 and 2009, the state reduced higher education funding nearly every year, and UofL raised its tuition an average 9 percent annually. Faculty and staff saw their salaries remain frozen from 2008 through 2010.

According to the suit, Bohm “strongly relied upon this representation of doctoral student assistance in making his determination to accept the contract of employment with the University of Louisville.”

Bohm began working at UofL July 1, 2010, but did not receive the Ph.D. student support until 2014, which he contends negatively affected his evaluations, at least two of which stated: “It is absolutely crucial that Matt either graduates a Ph.D. student or makes significant progress in moving a Ph.D. student toward graduation before he goes up for tenure. Failure to do so will negatively impact his tenure case.”

Bohm told Insider that he asked for help, but ran into a “circle of ‘Nos.” He said he complained to his department chair, who told him to talk to the dean, who told him to talk to the chair. At the time, the department also saw significant leadership turnover, which made it more difficult to get anyone to listen to his complaints, he said.

Bohm said he also filed grievances, but various university panels ruled against him, which prompted him to seek redress in court.

At some point, you just get tired of hearing “no,” he said.

When Bohm was denied a tenured position, the major factors the university cited included the failure to graduate a doctoral student, produce enough journal publications and obtain sufficient research grants.

“Each of these factors … (was) negatively impacted by the false representation” the university made upon hiring Bohm, the lawsuit alleges.

Bohm resigned from the university on July 20, 2016.

Prater remains on the J.B. Speed School faculty. Wilhelm retired in 2013.

Court documents show the university has asked the court to dismiss the case, in part because it is claiming governmental immunity.

Bohm said in his response that the university’s breach of contract claim is not barred by governmental immunity and that preventing the suit from going forward would harm the university and the public.

“It is undoubtedly an unsound public policy to allow a state university to freely perpetrate fraud upon those whom they (recruit) as professors and thereafter face no repercussions,” Bohm wrote in his response to the motion to dismiss. “The public has an interest in ensuring that state universities are working to bring the best and brightest professors to teach (their) students. Allowing universities to fraudulently induce individuals into accepting employment with false promises and then to hide behind the cloak of governmental immunity will do nothing but damage the university’s reputation, both in the eyes of the public and academia.”

Bohm also argues that the university’s action could “raise issues” with its accreditation, in that its accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, requires that its institutions “operate with integrity in all matters.”

Bohm now works as assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at the College of Innovation and Technology at Florida Polytechnic University. The institution does not have a tenure track. Bohm’s two-year contract recently was extended for another year.

According to the lawsuit, FPU pays “substantially less than (Bohm’s) expected salary at the University of Louisville upon becoming tenured.”

UofL has about 1,000 more professors/lecturers (2,300) than FPU has students (1,300).

Bohm has asked the court to compensate him for past and future lost wages, personal indignity and humiliation, loss of opportunity, unnecessary relocation expenditures and damages to his reputation.

But the lawsuit is about more than money, Bohm said.

He had come to love Louisville and had established a life here, including a house, colleagues and friends, he said. The university’s actions forced him to give up all of that, move to a new area and essentially start over.

“Florida isn’t home,” he said.