Rev. C. Kevin Gillespie

No Confidence in Anyone

May 27, 2014

Professors at Saint Joseph's University are so distrustful of their administration that they're running out of administrators to take no confidence votes in. Faculty members recently tabled a no confidence vote in their president because they feared that if he were weakened, another senior official in whom they've voted no confidence would come to power.

Such is the acrimony at the Philadelphia private college. Starting last fall, the faculty have approved a series of statements criticizing the most powerful leaders at the university.

The Faculty Senate censured the whole administration in September. In March, it took a no confidence vote in two senior administrators, including a former interim president who remains at the university as a vice president. In April, senators passed a resolution urging university to cut its ties with its current board chairman once his term expires this summer. This month, the business school faculty voted no confidence in the president, the Rev. C. Kevin Gillespie, and the Senate Executive Committee warned the incoming board chairman the whole Senate was prepared to do the same.

At the heart of the matter are money and the direction of the institution. The university’s trustees and administration have had to deal with two unexpected multimillion-dollar shortfalls by cutting budgets and working to increase enrollment and class sizes.

Faculty complain all this has been done without them. They argue fixes to administrators’ mistakes – including incorrect budget projections – are being forced on them while administrators have yet to be held accountable.

An external review of St. Joseph’s this spring by a team from the Middle States Commission of Higher Education, the university’s accreditor, concluded, “These Faculty Senate actions are disturbing and crucial developments, pointing to a deep crisis in the governance process.” The visiting team said the board had "overstepped" its role in setting some policies, including enrollment goals, and that the all-around climate has contributed to low morale among professors.

That a no confidence vote in Father Gillespie came first from the business school is also notable, given many of the issues are over the budget.

“There still is lack of clarity as to who really is – at least in the minds of a lot of faculty – who is really calling the shots,” said William J. McDevitt, an associate professor in the university’s Haub School of Business.

Faculty wonder whether Father Gillespie is in charge, or if the reins are more in the hands of John Smithson, the senior vice president who is a former chairman of the Board of Trustees and was interim president before it hired Father Gillespie.  

University spokesman Joseph Lunardi – who fielded questions on behalf the university’s president, senior vice president and both the outgoing and incoming board chairmen – said faculty have turned a budgeting dispute into a battle over character.

“It feels to some like it’s been made personal,” he said, “when it’s pretty numerical.”

To deal with lower operating margins and unexpected shortfalls, the university has cut its retirement contribution and match to 10 percent from 11 percent, moved to a high-deductible health insurance plan, cut department budgets across the board and moved to increase class sizes. 

The university has also gone ahead with a plan to grow its enrollment. About 90 percent of its revenue comes from tuition – Saint Joseph's has about 5,000 undergraduates and 3,000 graduate students. Whether the plan will bring in new revenue remains to be seen, particularly considering the competitive Philadelphia market.

In order to boost enrollment the university has tried a couple of sweeteners, like dropping the requirement that applicants take the ACT or SAT. Perhaps more importantly, the university is showering students with more financial aid – its tuition discount is about 41 percent now, meaning students only pay, on average, about 60 cents on the dollar. A decade ago, the discount rate was 26 percent.

“Consequently,” a self-study by an internal university group concluded in January, “net tuition revenue has not been increasing enough to support operating expenses.”

In April, Father Gillespie told faculty in an email that the money being set aside for scholarships to lure students was projected to increase to $86 million for the incoming classes, up from $60 million three years ago. Total tuition revenue is projected to be around $240 million, according to a separate internal budget document.

“There is simply no easy way to work around that critical expense,” he said in the email to faculty. “So while we strive for wider representation in the budget development process, please understand that financial aid spending – and thus the budget itself – is not expected to normalize under current market conditions until the year after next.”

The university’s operating margins have also shrunk from about 8 percent before the recession to roughly 3 percent in the past few years. At the same time, its bond debt has tripled from $70 million in 2004 to about $219 million in the coming year.

“The university, like many institutions of higher education, has been facing some challenging budgetary issues in the wake of the great recession, and the university has been responding to the pressures," McDevitt, the business professor, said. "However, they engaged in a habit of disenfranchising faculty from many decisions that were being made, including decisions that affected academic quality."

The administration is now working to decrease its use of adjuncts, faculty say, and increase class sizes.   

Lunardi, the administration spokesman, said the average class size will increase by no more than two students per class. Faculty worry that St. Joe’s, as is its known, is countering the very kind of value, such as small classes, that motivates people to look at high sticker prices. In this case, tuition, room and board sticker price are nearly $53,000.

The outside team from Middle States team expressed similar worries, “it is difficult to understand how a First-Year Seminar with 25 students in any way qualifies as a seminar.” Father Gillespie wrote back earlier this month and told Middle States that his administration had rethought the plan to increase the size of writing-intensive courses.

Some faculty say they might be willing to go along with some of what the university has proposed, but that the administration has done little but present them with faits accomplis.

“If the numbers are understood and the numbers make sense, people will do a lot,” said Claire A. Simmers, a chair of management in the business school.

She said the business school could do more to help the university solve its problems.

Ken Hartman, a senior fellow at the consulting firm Eduventures and a former president of Drexel University Online, said endemic problems at tuition-dependent privates like Saint Joseph’s are a long time coming, are often not the fault of the administration left to deal with them and are not going to solve themselves.

“President Gillespie happens to be in the watchtower so he’s the messenger, but you can shoot the messenger – but that doesn’t mean the message is going away,” he said.

Interviews and documents suggest the business school is far from alone in being prepared to take a no confidence vote in Father Gillespie. The letter from the Faculty Senate executive committee told the incoming trustees chairman there were three reasons they hadn’t taken the vote yet: the vote could led to Gillespie’s ouster, bringing Smithson back to power; the administration is already so weak a vote could “set the university adrift to an even greater extent”; and the vote would “damage the university’s ability to attract an incoming class" upon which its future so crucially depends.

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