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Turning a Blind Eye

September 11, 2008

Amid a wave of complaints about Robert Felner, a former University of Louisville dean who is now under federal investigation, administrators supported the embattled dean and even bankrolled a lawyer to defend him from faculty critics. While the university’s president and provost have recently apologized for backing Felner for so long, details emerging from the controversy show a broken grievance process at Louisville that many say favors administrators and leaves professors unprotected from retaliation.

Felner left Louisville in June to become chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, only to back out of that position when news of the federal investigation into allegations of misappropriated grant money became public. Asked about Felner's departure, Louisville's provost let linger the possibility that he was ultimately pressured to leave, even though Felner retained public support from the president throughout the saga.

“Things that are personnel-related we don’t talk about, and anything we might have done [can't be discussed],” says Shirley Willihnganz, the provost. "Dean Felner did leave, taking a job at a much smaller place with a $50,000 less salary.”

During his five-year tenure as dean of the College of Education and Human Development at Louisville, Felner earned a reputation as a divisive force, building alliances with a core group of faculty and administrators, while punishing those who didn’t pledge their loyalty to him. Complaints from faculty, revealed through public records, contain multiple allegations of harassment and retaliation, characterizing Felner as a “cruel man who enjoys ridiculing others.” But despite an accumulation of 4 formal grievances and 27 informal complaints about Felner, the dean retained the support of his superiors and always managed to come out clean.

“I think the salient question is how does a dean get so thoroughly, completely out of control for five years and get away with it?” says Bryant Stamford, a former faculty member who served under Felner at Louisville.

Faculty within the College of Education and Human Development voted “no confidence” in Felner in March 2006. But Felner retained his position more than two years later, and Louisville President James Ramsey said he was "deeply indebted" to Felner in an e-mail sent June 2, after he was appointed chancellor at Parkside. In the e-mail sent to Felner, Ramsey added that he was worried about “letting the Indians get back in control of the reservation” after Felner’s resignation.

While Felner ran afoul of some faculty, he was credited with helping his college improve its rankings and expand research enterprise, moves that fit within Ramsey's larger vision of transforming Louisville into a major metropolitan research university.

"In light of these accomplishments, we believed early concerns about the dean's leadership style stemmed from the rapid change and heavy demands he had placed on his faculty," Ramsey wrote in an August 22 letter sent to faculty.

Louisville Supplies Counsel

Felner, whom the university provided with legal counsel, always fared well in the faculty grievance process. Of the four cases that came before the University Faculty Grievance Committee, which is made up of faculty members selected by their units, the dean was never found to be at fault. But a number of the complaints about Felner never made it into the grievance process, in part because faculty members said they felt intimidated or were told their concerns couldn’t be handled in a process designed to address policy or procedure violations.

“The grievance process, as it stands, doesn’t have room for [addressing] people being jerks,” says Beth Boehm, the outgoing Faculty Senate chair, who is working with a committee to revise the process.

Willihnganz, provost at Louisville, defends the decision to keep Felner in office, saying she received positive feedback about him as well as negative reviews. She adds, "It's not like 30 complaints came forward at the same time.”

Photo: University of Louisville

Shirley Willihnganz, provost at Louisville, acknowledges the grievance process needs reform.

 

Felner’s staying power at Louisville may also be attributable to the university’s overt efforts to defend him, even as a steady stream of complaints trickled in about the dean. Between 2003 and 2007, the university paid $27,558.97 in legal fees for issues related to the College of Education and Human Development, where Felner was dean for that period. Of that money, about $25,000 is estimated by university officials to have been specifically used to hire outside counsel to defend Felner in faculty grievance cases. That figure does not capture, however, any consultation Felner may have received from Louisville’s own in-house counsel.

Faculty are also entitled to legal counsel during the grievance process, but the university doesn’t pay for their lawyers.

Cases against Felner kept the university’s grievance officer busy, even though most of them never made it to the point of formal hearings. Indeed, 6 of the 18 consultations the grievance officer handled in 2007 came from Felner's college, according to a report filed by the officer.

Felner’s current lawyer, Scott Cox, says the former dean would not comment for this article. Cox, who declined to comment on the status of the investigation, has previously told news organizations that his client denies any wrongdoing.

The investigation into Felner concerns, in part, allegations that a $694,000 grant wasn’t spent on the No Child Left Behind Center for which it was awarded. Citing e-mails and documents, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported that Felner directed $130,000 in university money to a financially struggling center in Rhode Island that he created prior to coming to Louisville.

No charges have been filed against Felner, but the investigation is continuing.

None of the complaints faculty made against Felner, as summarized by the university, addressed allegations of misusing grant money.

Complaints Dismissed Repeatedly

While a number of faculty steered clear of the grievance process, it’s not as if they didn’t make their concerns known to administrators. Take the case of Ellen McIntyre, who spent four years complaining about Felner before she finally resigned in 2007. McIntyre, who was on the faculty at Louisville for 17 years, says she sent her concerns about an “environment of fear and retaliation” up the chain of command, eventually as high as the provost’s office.

According to McIntyre, she met once with her department head in 2003. She says she twice met with Felner himself, once in 2004, and again in 2005, in the company of an associate dean. McIntyre had two additional meetings with the provost about Felner, and says she conveyed her concerns again in two signed letters sent to the provost in the spring and fall of 2004.

But McIntyre’s complaints fell on deaf ears, and she saw no real remedy in the grievance process as defined at Louisville.

“It’s more about ethics than policies. It’s more about morale, and respect -- the kind of stuff that you really can’t grieve,” says McIntyre, who has since found a job on faculty elsewhere.

But Willinghanz, the provost, maintains that the mixed reviews her office received made the case against Felner unclear.

“If I knew then what I know now I would have handled things differently,” she says.

Quickly Awarded Degree Raises Questions

While many complaints about Felner didn't allege specific policy violations, new reports about a degree awarded to a school superintendent with connections to Felner raise questions about whether university policies were followed. As the Louisville Courier-Journal reported Wednesday, Felner oversaw the dissertation of a Ph.D. student who managed to earn a doctoral degree from the university after just a single semester of study at Louisville. The student, John Deasy, had steered a $375,000 contract toward Felner's center two years earlier, when Deasy was superintendent of California's Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, the Courier-Journal reported.

Louisville's student graduate handbook notes that "at least two years of study must be spent at the University of Louisville" to earn a Ph.D., but the university "made the exception" in this case, according to Willinghanz, the provost.

John White, a spokesman for Prince George's County Public Schools in Maryland, where Deasy is superintendent, said Wednesday that Deasy transferred prior credits from other institutions and had legitimately earned the doctorate.

"They awarded the doctorate," he says. "It’s hanging on the wall… He did his work, he got his doctorate, the university approved it, and if [reporters] have questions about the process they need to ask the university.”

Asked about the degree awarded to Deasy, Willinghanz acknowledges that the university is now looking at everything that happened under Felner with a skeptical eye.

“I think it makes us curious about looking into everything," she says.

On Wednesday, Louisville President James Ramsey announced the formation of a blue-ribbon committee to examine how the Ph.D. was awarded, calling it "an issue that strikes at the heart of our institutional integrity."

Faculty Feared Retaliation

For all of the complaining about Felner, faculty members say that the public grievances were only the tip of the iceberg. Many never filed grievances because -- they say -- they feared retaliation. Dozens of unsigned complaints were sent to administrators, but they appeared to carry little weight. In a now-notorious interview, President James Ramsey referred to such complaints as “anonymous crap."

The stories of faculty who experienced retaliation after coming forward without anonymity became commonplace at Louisville during Felner’s tenure. Bryant Stamford, who left Louisville for Hanover College in 2005, brought a formal grievance against Felner based on a student’s complaint that Felner was sexually harassing her.

Stamford says he was duty-bound to report the harassment case, but he attests that Felner retaliated against him, freezing the budget of a health and wellness program so Stamford couldn’t pay newly hired staff members. Felner had previously been a big supporter of the program -- “we were getting everything we wanted,” Stamford says -- but the dean sought to drain the program of resources after Stamford filed his grievance.

“He did the Russian mafia thing: If I can’t kill you, I’m going to kill everybody you care about,” says Stamford, who says the Felner affair prompted him to resign after 32 years at Louisville.

Stamford says he was not allowed to disclose the outcome of the grievance, but a summary of faculty grievance rulings shows that just one sexual harassment case made it through the grievance process. In that case, “insufficient evidence” was found to establish a violation of university policy.

Three years before Ramsey dismissed anonymous complaints as “crap,” Stamford says he alerted administrators to Felner’s propensity for retaliation.

“I go to the administration and say, ‘Hey, this isn’t right. I reported this [sexual harassment] -- I did my duty -- and I’m being crucified here,’ ” he recalls.

Stamford is now professor and chair of the Department of Exercise Science at Hanover, in Indiana. Along with 20 other former Louisville faculty members, he signed a letter sent to the university’s Board of Trustees last month, lamenting that faculty concerns hadn’t been taken seriously or protected.

Fairness of Hearings Questioned

The failure to protect faculty from retaliation is just one of the reasons the grievance process has problems at Louisville, according to Suzanne Meeks, who ended a three-year stint as the university’s faculty grievance officer in 2007. During her years in the grievance office, Meeks says she found the process to be unfair, noting that “in general the cards tended to be stacked against the faculty member.”

“It’s pretty rare at the University of Louisville for an administrator to lose a grievance,” says Meeks, who articulated her concerns in a 2007 report. “At the University of Louisville, the administration has legal counsel that they don’t have to pay for. I’d say that’s favoring them.”

Felner faced four formally filed grievances while at Louisville, and in at least two circumstances the university provided him with legal counsel, officials say.

Andrew Kemp, a former faculty member at Louisville, says he was disinclined to continue with the grievance process when he learned Felner was provided with university-funded legal representation.

“The reason I really didn’t go through with it was when Felner walked into that meeting, he walked in with a lawyer that was hired by the university, and I knew from the get-go that I didn’t have chance,” says Kemp, who was disputing an unfavorable tenure ruling and says he couldn’t afford his own lawyer.

According to university bylaws, parties on both sides of grievance hearings can bring lawyers, but the lawyers are not permitted to question witnesses in the court-style proceedings. Even so, lawyers are permitted to coach their clients, directing them toward particular lines of questioning or assisting in evidence gathering.

Louisville’s Faculty Senate is undergoing a review of the grievance process and is expected to recommend changes by November. The university’s practice of providing lawyers to administrators, and not to faculty, “may be something we need to look at” in the interest of fairness, says Willihnganz.

A Common Problem

Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, says that the grievance process has widespread problems across higher education, particularly at universities like Louisville that don’t have union representation.

“I am just impressed by the widespread fact that on many, many campuses -- especially those without collective bargaining -- the grievance process for faculty has deteriorated to a point of non-existence,” he says.

Despite the problems, faculty aren’t likely to get worked up about a failed grievance system, unless they’re directly affected by it, Nelson adds.

“Faculty tend to take much more notice of problems that affect all of them or that represent the faculty’s authority in general,” he says. “But when some particular faculty member is abused, it’s pretty hard to get people to take notice unless they themselves are affected.”

 

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