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Commentary: Cracks in SLU's 'Iron Curtain'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 4, 2012 - Media coverage of the recent troubles at Saint Louis University has focused on the personality of Fr. Lawrence Biondi. While there has been some discussion of the administration-faculty tensions that have been growing for years, for the most part, the root cause of these tensions has been ignored.

At the heart of the turmoil roiling SLU has been the unprecedented centralization of power in the president’s hands.

Behind this lie a culture of secrecy that has insulated the administration for many years, and, until recently, an unbroken code of silence that Fr. Biondi and Vice President Manoj Patankar have enforced.

This secretiveness manifests itself in many ways. Unlike most major universities, for instance, SLU does not make its Board of Trustees bylaws available. According to the Association of American University Professors, the governing board of a university “operates as the final institutional authority.” The lack of access to the bylaws is akin to the federal government depriving its citizens of access to the Constitution and the protection it affords everyone who lives within the United States.

Nobody outside of the central administration knows what’s going on or has a voice in constructing the policies that guide everyone in the university. This barrier is reinforced by the administration effectively insulating the board from direct communications from faculty and students. Therefore, the trustees do not have an independent picture of what has been happening.

Recently, there have been numerous incidents of the administration’s unwillingness to share information with its core constituencies, including faculty and students, much less consult them. The following are the more glaring examples:

Closure of the Graduate School – In 2010, suddenly and without warning, the Graduate School, which had overseen the awarding of higher degrees, was closed. Fr. Biondi claimed the Faculty Senate was fully informed since the then faculty president participated in meetings where the issue was discussed. But those deliberations were of course “confidential” and so could not be shared widely. Then, to calm the ensuing hubbub, he commissioned the Senate to do a study of centralized vs. decentralized graduate education. The study suggested not closing the graduate school, a recommendation the president promptly ignored.

College of Education and Public Service (CEPS) Reallocation -- The intent to close Public Policy Studies and Counseling and Family Therapy in the College of Education and Public Service was cloaked by four “retreats" to determine the direction and mission of CEPS. Not once did the possibility of closing those departments even come up for discussion. (Up to that moment these units that had been seen as essential to the mission of the university.) When the announcement was made, those departments had a short window to respond and offer alternatives. The board decided to delay the closure so more study could be done, but to no avail. The faculty received no help from central administration in working out a plan (an implied suggestion of the board); and in fact the creation of a plan to save the departments was discouraged since the academic vice president told the affected parties that he did not believe in the long term viability of the degrees.

Faculty salary freezes -- These were imposed on faculty and staff during the current fiscal year, after the deans, the President's Coordinating Council, and the Board of Trustees agreed there would be enough money in the budget to provide raises. More than one dean expressed a sense of betrayal when the decision was announced that no raises would be forthcoming.

The surprise university strategic plan -- This effort to chart the future direction of SLU was preceded by deliberations of ad hoc committees of faculty and department chairs that never focused on strategic planning. Sessions focused on ideas for moving the university forward, but no systematic discussion of resources, timelines and benchmarks (the hallmarks of strategic planning) occurred. The strategic plan that only recently came to light had been constructed entirely by key administrators under Fr. Biondi, most notably Vice President Patankar.

The brouhaha over proposed tenure reform is just one in a long line of examples of creating the appearance of shared governance ("but we had meetings") without having to actually share governance with the people who had to live with new rules and standards they had no hand in shaping and no right to appeal.

This lack of transparency violates American Association of University Professor’s guidelines regarding shared governance, the idea that there should be shared responsibility and cooperative action among the components of a modern university. The AAUP is explicit in stating that “Effective planning demands that the broadest possible exchange of information and opinion should be the rule for communication among the components of a college or university.”

Lack of accountability is the heart of the matter and what is wrong at SLU. In the absence of dialogue and consultation, we have seen university administrators act in their own interest but not those of the larger university community they are supposed to serve, not rule.

Just in the past three years, a troubling pattern has emerged: no Faculty Senate review of academic programs or department closures, no openness to discussion of new policies unless that discussion follows the administration's preconceived plans, suddenly springing decisions (cuts in the library budget, new faculty evaluation proposals, closing the Graduate School, closing departments in the College of Education and Public Service) shortly before they were to be implemented.

To illustrate the problematic character of these policies and procedures, one need look no further than the just released information that SLU has been averaging between a 5 and 9 percent “profit” over the past few years. That figure falls well short of the 50 percent profit that Vice President of Academic Affairs Patankar insists that each of the university’s academic units  make every year. Failure to hit that mark, Patankar has argued, leaves the affected department in line to be closed and their faculty dismissed. Granted, most Fortune 500 companies don’t make that kind of profit one year much less every year. But if the same policy were to be applied to the whole university as Patankar has applied it to two departments in the College of Education and Public Service, including our own, we’d have to shut down the entire institution.

SLU isn’t broken. Its administration is. That’s why the Faculty Senate voted overwhelmingly against keeping Vice President Patankar and Fr. Biondi at the university in their current positions. Votes of no confidence are rare in colleges and universities. They only happen when the faculty has seen too much wrong go on for far too long. The Board of Trustees is playing a waiting game, hoping that tempers will cool, and that Fr. Biondi’s administration can be saved. Replacing VP Patankar, as some people expect, might have helped the university’s beleaguered president a couple of weeks ago. It’s unlikely to be enough now.

SLU’s iron curtain has been cracked. The only question now is when, not if, it’s going to fall.

Robert Cropf chairs the Department of Public Policy Studies; Scott Cummings and Daniel Monti are professors in the department.

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