Degree in dispute

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Tim Ajmani
The Corsair

The fate of a former Pensacola State College professor will be decided by Nov. 14 after an arbitration hearing was held last month to appeal the termination of Robert Michael Ardis.

Ardis, a tenured criminal justice professor, was suspended December 2010 without pay for presenting the college with a master’s degree from a non-accredited institution, Belford University, he claimed was earned while on paid sabbatical leave. His employment was officially terminated on Jan. 18, 2011 by the district board of trustees.

President’s Petition

The South Carolina native was hired by the college in August, 2002.  He previously earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of South Carolina.

Ardis originally applied for sabbatical leave in January 2009 for the spring and first summer terms of 2010. In his sabbatical application, Ardis indicated his intent to pursue a second master’s degree, termed master’s plus in the faculty union’s collective bargaining agreement, in the field of American Government.

Sabbatical application

In the sabbatical leave report prepared in November 2010, Ardis stated that he completed his coursework from Belford University effective Aug.12, 2010.

Sabbatical leave report

But during testimony led by Michael Mattimore, labor and employment attorney with Allen, Norton & Blue in Tallahassee, hired to represent the college, Ardis admitted that he never contacted any accredited institutions about their master’s degree programs, or inquired about tuition at any universities before or during the sabbatical.

Ardis testimony regarding contacting institutions about master’s degrees

Ardis claimed that there were circumstances that prevented him from completing the sabbatical as intended.  He said he was the only full-time criminal justice instructor at the time and the crime scene technician program was just beginning, as well as preparation for the bachelor of applied science degree.

According to his sabbatical report, Ardis felt it was “imperative” for him to continue to come to the main campus, and deal with issues that arose in the criminal justice department.  During the hearing, he said he was also teaching an overload of four to five classes during the paid sabbatical.

At one point before the sabbatical, Ardis claimed that he asked then Vice President for Instructional Affairs, Dr. Martin Gonzalez, to either delay or change the scope of the sabbatical, first through a series of e-mails, and then in a face-to-face meeting.  Gonzalez, when questioned by United Faculty of Florida attorney H.B. Stivers, denied the meeting took place and that he did not have the authority to grant the change.

“I have no authority to change the time, nor do I have the authority to change the purpose of the sabbatical,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez testimony

When Ardis was asked to prepare the sabbatical report in November, 2010, he said he realized that he had no written proof to support the change in scope for the sabbatical, so he contacted Belford University and paid $624 for the degree and chosen graduation date, including an extra $25 for cum laude.

“It’s not something I’m proud of,” Ardis said during the hearing.

Ardis explains events leading to Belford degree

When the college received notice of Ardis’ degree from Belford University, according to Tom Gilliam, college general counsel and vice president of student affairs, there was some question on the fulfillment of the sabbatical. The Belford degree indicated that Ardis earned a Master’s Degree in Public Administration. Gilliam said he then went to the Belford University Web site to find out about relevancy of the degree.

Belford degree information

“I began to realize that it was a Web site that sold pieces of paper,” Gilliam remarked.

Belford University advertises on their site that a person can apply and receive a master’s degree within 15 days, rewarding them based on life “experience” or by taking an “online equivalency test,” with the option of paying a fee to acquire a better grade point average (GPA) or change the graduation date.

“Either he knew in advance he was not going to go to school, was not going to take those courses, in which case he made a statement to the college that he knew to be false, that the college had relied upon and the college had suffered damages in the form of paying him for not working,” Gilliam said. “If he knew in advance, he committed fraud.”

Gilliam testimony

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