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Saint Louis U. faculty and board at stalemate over fate of president and vice president

Out on a Limb
December 10, 2012

To the faculty of Saint Louis University, the institution’s president, Rev. Lawrence H. Biondi, must look a lot like Wile E. Coyote in the old Looney Tunes shorts: charging ahead at 100 miles per hour with nothing below him for support.

And, in their minds, he’s going to have to fall at some point.

The university has been embroiled in debate since August, when the university’s vice president for academic affairs, Manoj Patankar, pushed a controversial post-tenure review plan that would have forced faculty members to essentially reapply for tenure every three years. That proposal – eventually withdrawn – led to complaints by faculty members that they were being cut out of decision-making, votes of no confidence in Patankar and Father Biondi by faculty and students, and threats of a mass exodus. Several faculty members said the tenure review plan brought to a head years of feeling like the administration was unilaterally making decisions.

“What’s underlying this is extreme centralization,” said Ellen Carnaghan, chair of the university’s department of political science and a vocal opponent of the reforms. “For 25 years as president, Biondi’s basically made whatever decision he feels like, and we deal with the fallout.”

Tensions appeared to ease after a statement from the board and faculty leaders last Friday pledged increased cooperation and communication, but a letter leaked the next day -- in which the board’s chairman noted that the board had enlisted a crisis communications firm to manage the issue, and called for unanimous support of Father Biondi and for board members to refrain from talking with faculty or the media – reignited faculty anger.

Both camps seem to be dug in. The board has reiterated its support for Father Biondi, and the president has in turn reiterated his support for Patankar. At the same time, faculty members seem more adamant than ever about removing both. All are eager to see what happens at the board’s next meeting on December 15.

While tensions between faculty members and administrators are common, it has been rare for a president who has gone through a series of public controversies and lost the confidence of a broad swath of the faculty to remain in power long. But the Saint Louis dispute is shaping up to be another test case in whether faculty members – particularly those at institutions that don’t have a national profile – still carry significant weight in institutional governance.

The dispute also highlights a recurring theme in higher education over the past few years, in which boards and administrators, pushing changes that they believe will help their institutions get to the top without significant resource investments, shy away from deliberation for fear of faculty pushback damaging the institution’s reputation.

A spokesman for Saint Louis declined to comment or make members of the administration or board available for comment for this story, instead pointing to administrators’ previous statements and correspondences.

Touching a Third Rail

The current dispute began in August, when Patankar proposed the post-tenure review system. While such systems are growing in popularity, the Saint Louis plan’s requirement of a regular tenure-like review was unusually stringent. The review also allowed for moving faculty members to non-tenure-track positions or giving them a contract that would expire in a year, something not found in other plans.

The proposal sparked broad outrage among faculty members. The American Association of University Professors weighed in, with Robert Kreiser, senior programs officer, telling the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the proposal was “exactly the opposite of what tenure is,” and saying it “effectively eviscerates the university’s existing tenure system.”

Steve Harris, a mathematics professor, reconstituted the university’s chapter of the AAUP. “Proper governance has long been a struggle at SLU,” he said. “The AAUP once commended the SLU policies as an effective manual and as an ideal document. However, practice has not always followed the spirit of the document.”

Administrators held that the proposal was simply a draft for faculty to weigh in on and by no means a final plan for the institution. The Faculty Senate responded that the proposal should be rejected in its entirety, calling it “irremediably flawed.”

Faculty members said the proposal brought to the surface several years of private complaints. “This is the thing that got everybody mad at the same time,” Carnaghan said.

“You don’t get this kind of reaction over something that just popped up in the last two months,” said Daniel Monti, a professor of public policy studies.

Faculty members pointed to a handful of administrative decisions over the past few years that they said were made without giving faculty members a meaningful voice, such as the decisions to close the graduate school and to restructure the College of Education and Public Service. Faculty members also said a recent strategic planning process was flawed, with faculty given the opportunity to help shape the institution’s vision but shut out of talks about implementation. Father Biondi and administrators rejected these claims, saying faculty were properly consulted on the decisions and given opportunities to weigh in.

The administration eventually withdrew the proposal, but faculty members in the College of Arts and Sciences, followed by the full Faculty Senate, overwhelmingly passed votes of no confidence in Patankar.

In early October, Father Biondi responded to the faculty’s vote, saying he supported Patankar and challenging the faculty’s assumptions. "The letter to me provides no concrete or credible facts supporting the Senate's assertion that the University's reputation has been severely eroded; nor do the assertions support the action of no confidence in Dr. Patankar," the president wrote in a letter to faculty.

That led to a vote of no confidence in Father Biondi focused narrowly on his continued support for Patankar, from the Faculty Council, the group that represents the faculty of the College Arts and Sciences, on October 11. They were joined by faculty members in the business school.

On October 30, after not receiving a response from Father Biondi, the full Faculty Senate passed a broader vote of no confidence in the president, calling on the board to fire him. Student government joined the faculty the following day, saying the concerns of the faculty were their concerns, but also adding other concerns such as the president’s distance from students. A group of students started a Facebook page, SLU Students for No Confidence, which has become a site to share concerns about the university’s direction.

Liz Ramsey, a first-year law student who also received her undergraduate degree from SLU and now serves as a spokeswoman for the student group, also said there was a “culture of fear” on campus, with students afraid to speak out against the administration out of fear of getting scholarships revoked. Ramsey said there is not much goodwill between Father Biondi and students, who view the president as aloof and unsociable. “It’s been a running joke as long as I’ve been here, that Biondi just rides around in his golf cart and doesn’t talk to anyone,” she said.

Following the votes, about a month passed before any formal word came from the board. Then, on Nov. 30, the board issued a joint statement with the executive committee of the Faculty Senate pledging “more frequent and effective communications throughout the University Community.” While the letter did not hit on the faculty's major concerns, particularly Patankar’s role, faculty members said the release signaled a shift in the approach to faculty.

But that harmony was short-lived. The next day the SLU Students for No Confidence Facebook page posted a letter leaked to them from someone on the board.  The letter called for unified support of Father Biondi and for members of the board to refrain from speaking with members of the media or the faculty.

Several faculty members said the letter made them question the board’s recent communication. There have been no more formal actions by any of the faculty governance bodies, but individual faculty members have begun reiterating calls for Patankar’s and Father Biondi’s resignations.

Students also questioned the use of their tuition dollars to pay for a communications firm telling board members not to talk with them. They are planning to protest the board’s next meeting on December 15.

A History of Problems

The recent votes of no confidence in Father Biondi are not the first strikes against his leadership. In 2005, the president was criticized for taking substantial portions of homily from another university president – a move many consider plagiarism.

In August, the dean of the university’s law school, Annette E. Clark, quit in very public fashion, publishing a letter in which she accused Father Biondi and Patankar of taking money from the law school’s budget for general university purposes, which she said violated agreements. “From the beginning of my deanship, you have evinced hostility toward the law school and its faculty and have treated me dismissively and with disrespect, issuing orders and edicts that allowed me virtually no opportunity to exercise the very discretion for which you and the faculty enthusiastically hired me,” she wrote.

Administrators responded by saying that Clark was slated to be fired earlier that day but she skipped the meeting. They also questioned her professionalism.

For years, Father Biondi had broad support from the campus community. Much of the early years of his tenure were spent revitalizing the campus and the surrounding community, and several faculty members say he did great things for the institution through those efforts. During that time, faculty members say he traditionally left academic administration to a provost. “He was very busy doing all of that, so he wasn’t bothering the faculty,” Carnaghan said.

But they point to a shift in 2009 when administrators reorganized the academic affairs office, moving from a provost model to a vice president of academic affairs. They say at that point the president got more personally involved in faculty life.

The administration closed the graduate school in 2010, instead leaving it to departments to award graduate degrees, a decision faculty members say was made without proper faculty consultation. Monti and other faculty members in his department, public policy, said two years ago when the administration pushed to close the department without what they say was proper notification or consultation, resulting in a conflict with faculty members in that department.

Concerns About Reputation

Faculty members say an overriding concern of the administration has been a focus on upholding the institution’s reputation. SLU administrators have focused for several years on growing the institution's national profile, and faculty members said there is great concern among administrators that the current debate will harm the reputation they have worked to build.

Father Biondi and the board have repeatedly emphasized minimizing disputes – particularly the public perception of them -- so as to not damage the university’s reputation and standing. In the letter to faculty in response to the vote of no confidence in Patankar, the president wrote “I urge the Faculty Senate and the Senate leadership to use their influence for the greater good of the University, especially for our students and patients, whom we all serve, and refrain from actions that could damage SLU’s reputation and standing.”

Several weeks later he again challenged the faculty’s characterization of the institution. “In recent days, some members of the faculty have presented a distorted view of the University in an attempt to divide our SLU community, which has led to significant disagreement among the faculty ranks in the colleges and schools as well as between the Faculty Senate and the Faculty Council of the College of Arts and Sciences,” he wrote. “It is one thing to have honest disagreements, it is quite another to degrade this institution we all care about so deeply."

Faculty take issue with that characterization of their points. They say their efforts have focused solely on the leaders of the institution, rather than saying negative things about the university.

Last week’s letter also hits on the theme of minimizing the appearance of dissent. The board chairman urged board members and members of the Faculty Senate’s executive committee to keep their discussions confidential and for board members not to show any dissent with Father Biondi’s leadership.

The desire for harmony reflects a notion advocated by groups such as the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges – and seen in cases like the dispute that embroiled the University of Virginia this summer -- that, when speaking publicly, the board should speak with one voice. AGB does, however, encourage dissent and disagreement in board meetings.

But those rules don’t appeal to faculty members when they feel they’re being sidelined in the discussion. “A number of us think that we’re the relatively powerless part of this debate, and that engaging in talks isn’t going to get us anywhere,” Carnaghan said. “The best power we have is the power of publicity.”

Holding On

Faculty members said they don’t know how the dispute will end.

Because faculty are generally responsible for carrying out the central functions of a university – teaching, research, and service – and because they are the clearest indication of its quality, votes of no confidence by faculty members sometimes are followed (eventually) by resignations (see Lawrence Summers at Harvard, Michael Hogan at the University of Illinois, and Hazo Carter at West Virginia State University).

But sometimes they don’t. Kean University’s embattled president has withstood multiple votes of no confidence and repeated criticisms of his job – including evidence that his resume contained inaccuracies. He still receives the support of his board.

Faculty members at Saint Louis say ensuring a larger voice in governance and getting rid of Patankar are their primary objectives and that there is likely no way the current conflict gets resolved without his resignation. “With the vice president, there is no enviable track record in anything,” Harris said. “He has totally burned bridges with respect to the faculty. No one will deal with him."

While several faculty members said the relationship with Father Biondi is strained, they might be willing to work with him if he changes his tone. “He has a reservoir of good will that he has built up over 25 years,” Harris said. “I wouldn’t categorically say that we can’t work with him, but he has been acting very poorly, certainly in the last 12 months.”

Because there is little communication between rank-and-file faculty members and board members, and because administration talks with the Senate’s executive committee are confidential, faculty members say they are unsure of whether their demands are being heard. But someone on the board did leak the chairman’s letter, and Ramsey said there has been some communication between the board and students.

“We know that there are board members who agree with us, but right now they don’t feel like they can really do anything,” she said. “They might not be a minority, but they’re not saying anything publicly.”

Harris is skeptical that Saturday’s board meeting will bring closure to the debate. “I never thought this would be over at the December board meeting,” he said. “I always thought this was at best a year’s battle.”

 

 

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