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Dampened Spirit

September 8, 2009

One board member called it “dirty business.”

Last month’s controversial firing of Wheeling Jesuit University’s president had many twists and turns, pitting two governing boards against each other and spurring allegations that an area bishop played a role in the president’s ouster. While the Rev. Julio Giulietti was beloved by many, it was no secret that the Wheeling president had his detractors from the moment he took office two years ago. In the end, even Giulietti’s ardent supporters proved powerless to save him.

Giulietti was fired August 5, and his dismissal was the orchestrated work of a group of board members who -- amid the protest of some of their counterparts -- helped set in motion a vote that would prove Giulietti’s undoing, members of the Board of Directors said in interviews and now-public e-mails.

William Fisher, chair of the Board of Directors, encountered significant pushback as he moved toward a dismissal vote for the president. Among those who objected was Rudolph DiTrapano, a Charleston, W.V., lawyer and member of the board.

“I thought that [vote to remove him] was bizarre because we had no evidence of misconduct or incompetence,” says DiTrapano, who now intends to resign from the board. “Everything I knew, the man spoke five languages and was working day and night for the university. The vote was just baffling.”

Fisher, however, made clear that he wouldn’t be challenged. In a July 16 e-mail to the Rev. Edward Glynn, who holds dual membership on the university’s Boards of Directors and Trustees -- more on the role of the two boards below -- Fisher said the vote would go forward with or without the skeptics’ acquiescence.

“I exercise my right as Board [of Directors] chair to call the meeting. A majority of the board has told me they want one,” he wrote in an e-mail, now posted on a Web site dedicated to the case. “If you feel strongly it is a waste of time, you may ask to be excused.”

Fisher went forward with the August 5 vote at a time when Father Giulietti was on vacation and Father Glynn was attending his brother’s funeral in Pennsylvania, some 350 miles away from Wheeling. As such, Father Giulietti was unable to defend himself and Father Glynn, his lone likely supporter among the trustees, was unable to vote.

Inside Higher Ed requested an interview with Fisher through Wheeling’s communications office, but he was not made available.

When the vote came before the university’s Board of Directors, it narrowly failed to produce the two-thirds majority required to oust Father Giulietti, two board members told Inside Higher Ed. That result prompted a second vote the same day by the university’s Board of Trustees, which approved the measure. Some directors still question whether the trustees had authority to overrule them, and the university did not respond to a request for bylaws articulating the powers of the two boards.

“[Giulietti] survived the Board of Directors, then to add insult to injury some Board of Trustees I’d never heard of, three out of five show up, and overrule us,” DiTrapano said.

“I have not heard of any activity that the Board of Trustees embarked on [before this vote],” he adds. “It’s just bizarre that we were required to vote if our vote was meaningless.”

Throughout the process, DiTrapano said there was no discussion about the reasons for firing Giulietti, and the director was perplexed that a vote would go forward before a comprehensive evaluation with student and faculty input -- due this fall -- was completed. The perceived rush to judgment has led to speculation that the local Roman Catholic bishop, the Most Rev. Michael J. Bransfield, a longtime donor with no jurisdiction over the university, pushed for the ouster. A spokesman for the diocese denied the bishop’s involvement, but DiTrapano and another board member have heard otherwise.

“I believe that this termination was directly ordered by the diocese,” said Lynda Wolford, a director who resigned over the issue.

Wolford said she was told by someone “close to the diocese” that the bishop ordered the termination, but she would not elaborate on the source.

While Bishop Bransfield has no official role at the university, his connections to the institution extend beyond his patronage. Wheeling Jesuit is a desirable postsecondary option for students who attend area schools run by the Catholic diocese. Furthermore, Fisher, the Board of Directors chair who initiated the vote, works for the bishop as the diocese’s financial officer. Bryan Minor, a spokesman for the bishop, said any discussions that Fisher and Bishop Bransfield may have had about Wheeling Jesuit’s president were “merely coincidental.”

“He said to me specifically, ‘I have kept the office of the bishop out of the leadership discussions surrounding Wheeling Jesuit University,’ ” Minor said. “Bishop Bransfield wishes the best for Father Giulietti as he moves forward, and Bishop Bransfield wishes continued success for the university.”

If the bishop was indeed hands-off in his approach to the university, he was also quick to chime in after Giulietti’s firing. A news release announcing the “change of leadership” at Wheeling quoted the bishop, even though he has no official position within the university or authority in the matter. In an e-mail to Fisher, Glynn noted with some sarcasm the bishop’s contribution to the release.

“It is more than quite humorous that apparently the public spokespersons for the University in these matters is now not the Chair of the Board of Directors nor the Chair of the Board of Trustees, but the Bishop and the University legal counsel, neither of whom are members of Board of Directors and the Board of Trustees,” he wrote. “Yippee!"

The bishop emerged as a spokesman yet again to announce the appointment of the acting president, David McAteer, and then presided over a mass to mark “the current transition of leadership.”

Minor said the bishop agreed to the mass because he and McAteer had forged a friendship after the 2006 Sago mine disaster. McAteer, former assistant secretary for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, was directing an independent investigative panel examining the tragedy at the time, and Bishop Bransfield was providing spiritual support to the community.

The Rev. Charles L. Currie, a former president of Wheeling who maintains ties to the institution, said he believes Giulietti’s firing had more to do with a lack of chemistry between the president and some board members than any potential influence of the bishop.

“I’ve heard some of that same thing [about the bishop ordering this], and I can’t speak for the bishop, obviously. I don’t have any evidence that there was untoward influence,” said Father Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges. “I think it’s fairly obvious that the bishop and Father Giulietti didn’t have a great relationship, but I don’t know anything beyond that.”

It is clear Father Giulietti may have gotten off on the wrong foot with some directors, because the board was split on whether to hire him from the beginning. Some directors favored James Birge, who had served as interim president.

Birge, who is now president of Franklin Pierce College, in New Hampshire, could not be hired under the bylaws at the time, however, because he was a layman. The bylaws have since been changed to allow non-clergy members to be president.

Trustee’s Past Includes Harassment Allegations

The power struggle that unfolded at Wheeling Jesuit was in part a product of its somewhat unusual governance structure. Of the 28 Jesuit colleges in the United States, Wheeling is among only four that has two separate boards. The Board of Directors, made up mostly of lay people, numbers about 20 and handles most of the university-level decisions. The Board of Trustees, which is made up of Jesuits, typically delegates its authority to the directors -- but can intervene in certain circumstances like the dismissal of a president, according to Currie.

The question of whether the trustees in fact had the authority to overrule the directors at Wheeling may be moot in Giulietti’s case. He was ultimately asked by the Rev. James M. Shae, one of two provincials to whom he reports within the religious order, to step down, Currie said.

“Even if there was confusion with respect to the boards, once a provincial asks a Jesuit to leave an institution, that trumps everything else,” he said.

The three voting trustees were the Rev. Brian O’Donnell, the Jesuit community rector for Wheeling; the Rev. Gerard Stockhausen, president of the University of Detroit Mercy; and the Rev. Thomas F. Gleeson, a former president of the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., who was named as a defendant in a highly publicized sexual harassment suit filed by a former male student in Berkeley. The suit, which alleged Gleeson had asked to masturbate with the young seminary student, settled out of court in 2000 with no admission of wrongdoing, but it continues to haunt named defendants seeking positions of authority in higher education.

University officials did not respond to requests for comment on the past allegations made against Gleeson, but Currie stressed that the allegations were “never substantiated.”

“Since and before the case in question, Father Gleeson has held important positions of responsibility and brings to his role as a trustee many years of experience in higher education, including previous experience as a trustee at Wheeling,” Currie wrote in an e-mail. “I don’t think unproven allegations should stand in the way of his service.”

Father Giulietti and Father Glynn, the two remaining trustees, were absent from the special meeting to oust the president. Without access to the board’s bylaws, it’s unclear whether Father Giulietti would have had a vote concerning his own removal. However, Father Glynn made clear in an e-mail to Fisher that he felt the board was on “shaky ground” by proceeding with a vote when so few members were present.

“The dysfunctionality of the governing boards of Wheeling Jesuit University now is publicly manifesting itself,” Father Glynn wrote to Fisher August 8.

Father Glynn could not be reached for comment.

Property Dispute May Have Played Role

In a small town like Wheeling, there’s a lot of talk, and university officials have struggled to stay ahead of rumors about the reasons behind Father Giulietti’s dismissal.

Citing the confidentiality of “personnel matters,” university officials have provided no explanation for Father Giulietti’s firing, and as such a particular theory has persisted in the community.

Despite denials from the diocese, many believe the bishop was interested in obtaining a valuable piece of property that Father Giuletti appeared best positioned to acquire. The property in question was Mount de Chantel Visitation Academy, a recently closed school that is still home to five nuns. The nuns had an affection for Father Giulietti and the university, which is located on contiguous property, and had hoped Wheeling Jesuit would purchase and renovate the buildings – providing a home for the sisters for the remainder of their lives.

While the university may not have been financially positioned to acquire the property, Father Giulietti’s favored access was a source of frustration, according to Wolford’s unnamed source.

“That [conflict] stoked it, and so then everything Julio said or did became a point of ridicule for certain board members,” Wolford said. “They’ve made it very difficult for him the last six or seven months, and are not giving him any credit for what he’s accomplished there. And over time you’ll see all that reversed.”

According to Minor, the diocese has no interest in the academy’s property.

Acting President’s Appointment Questioned

When Father Giulietti was fired, it was reasonable for outsiders to assume that a critical report from NASA on the university’s administration of federal funds might have had something to do with it. The space agency’s August 3 audit suggested that NASA grant officers had failed to recognize the university’s double billing and other accounting errors on the order of $4 million.

But if the trustees who ousted Father Gulietti were upset about the NASA report, their selection of McAteer as acting president is puzzling. As university vice president, McAteer had oversight of the NASA projects, according to board members.

To glean from Father Glynn’s e-mails, however, it’s unclear how McAteer, who holds a law degree but no Ph.D., was chosen in the first place.

“Who appointed the acting president? No press release states who made the appointment,” Father Glynn wrote to Fisher. “As a Director and a Trustees [sic], I have received no request for approval of the appointment.”

McAteer did not respond to an interview request.

The university has not indicated how long McAteer might stay in place as acting president, but a search committee has been formed to find a new leader. If McAteer does not stay on, the new president would be the university’s sixth leader since 2003. That level of transition has left a bad taste in the mouths of some, and the handling of Father Giulietti’s dismissal hasn’t helped heal any wounds.

“This is dirty business. This is really dirty business,” said Wolford, who retired as Georgetown University’s vice president and chief audit executive two years ago. “It’s not the kind of thing you ever expect from an institution with a religious affiliation.”

 

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