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SLU faculty not giving up on Biondi's ouster

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 8, 2013 - As faculty members at Saint Louis University get ready for their long-sought audience before the university’s Board of Trustees, they want to make one thing clear:

They are not backing down from their demand that Father Lawrence Biondi be ousted as president of the school.

Ever since the Faculty Senate approved no confidence votes last year in both Biondi and his vice president for academic affairs, Manoj Patankar, members of the faculty body have pushed to be heard before the Board of Trustees. Though committees of both groups have met, faculty members said they wanted the full board to hear the grievances that led to the votes against Biondi and Patankar by both the Senate and the Student Government Association.

After the trustees met on Dec. 15 – a meeting that featured a protest rally outside DuBourg Hall where the trustees had convened – Thomas Brouster, chairman of the board, released a letter to faculty, staff and students that said Patankar had resigned and that the head of the Faculty Senate would be invited to the Feb. 9 board meeting.

A joint communication a few days later from Brouster and Mark Knuepfer, president of the Faculty Senate, said that representatives of the board and the administration would meet annually with the Senate to report on the state of the university, and trustees were invited to attend the final Faculty Senate meeting of the year on April 30.

Saturday’s presentation to the trustees will be made by Jane Turner, president-elect of the Senate and an associate professor of pathology, who told the Beacon that she did not want to go into detail about what she would say because of sensitivity on both sides concerning public airing of their differences.

She did say, however, that despite the fact that winter break came right after the December board meeting, followed by the typical crush of business at the beginning of the spring semester, faculty members’ resolve to push for Biondi’s removal has not faltered.

“Nobody is backing down from the votes of no confidence in Father Biondi,” she said. “There has not been a lack of momentum.”

On the contrary, she said that at the Faculty Senate meeting last week, which featured the annual presentation on the SLU budget and endowment, “the faculty was probably the most engaged I have ever seen them.”

Turner said she was not sure whether any public statement would be made after Saturday’s board meeting, but she planned to report back to the Faculty Senate at its meeting on Feb. 26.

Turner also said she was encouraged by actions taken by Ellen Harshman, the interim vice president for academic affairs who was named as Patankar’s replacement.

Though Harshman has not been in office for very long, Turner said she had met with deans and directors of academic programs and would meet with faculty leaders soon.

“We got the sense from her,” Turner said, “that she is interested in team building, and that was very reassuring to us.”

Turner was also pleased that Harshman had rescued two programs – public policy studies and counseling and family therapy – that had been targeted for elimination by Patankar last year.

Though Turner did not want to go into detail about communications with trustees or opinions about the protracted dispute, others have not been so reticent. Commentary has been published recently in the Post-Dispatch, SLU's University News and elsewhere.

A news release from a group called the Saint Louis University Strategy Committee asked Thursday that the SLU community “abstain from protests or demonstrations prior to this week’s meeting of the Board of Trustees.” They want to allow trustees “a period of calm reflection to address the ‘No Confidence” votes’ against Biondi.”

It added that faculty members want to make sure that trustees can give their full attention to some of the issues that inspired the no-confidence votes, including the question of shared governance, investigating the true costs of the move to the new downtown law school building and concerns about inadequate financing for academic programs.

The group also urged trustees to release what it called “crucial documents relating to the running of the university, including the bylaws by which the university is governed. Even some board members have been unable to obtain this basic operational statement.”

Issues that led to no-confidence votes

A breakdown in communication and collaboration between the Biondi administration and faculty has been a major cause of the dispute that led to the no confidence votes and the Faculty Senate call for Biondi to be fired. Other issues raised by the faculty have been a sense that the president has paid more attention to buildings than to academics, and that a lag in faculty salaries has led to a reduction in academic quality.

The issue of compensation took up a large part of the discussion at the Faculty Senate meeting where the budget was presented. Several questions were asked of David Heimburger, vice president and chief financial officer of the university, about what efforts would be made to meet financial offers that SLU faculty members receive from other universities.

He said that the SLU was trying to figure out what the salary gap with other schools may be and that a pool was going to be established to try to retain faculty members and maintain the school’s academic reputation. He said that the university is always willing to listen to faculty members’ concerns about compensation and competing offers.

In listing the various factors that influenced the university’s budget, among the risks that Heimburger included was “recent public relations impact on local and international admissions.”

But Jay Goff, the university’s vice president for enrollment and retention management, told the Beacon that the news about the dispute between the faculty and the administration has had no negative affect at all on applications.

“SLU's fall freshman and graduate applications are greater than last year and the academic profile has increased as well,” he wrote in an email.           

“We expect the new freshman class to come from about 45 U.S. states and 25 foreign nations, the average high school GPA to exceed 3.7 on a 4.0 scale and the average ACT/SAT to be close to the upper 10 percent in the nation.”

The university’s tuition for the next academic year is going up 3.9 percent to just more than $36,000.

One professor’s experience

Despite the contentions by university officials that SLU is always willing to consider faculty concerns about salary and competing offers, at least one faculty member had quite a different experience.

In documents he shared with the Beacon and gave permission for them to become public, Matthew Hall -- who holds a joint appointment in political science and law – wrote to trustees after he had accepted an offer of employment from Notre Dame, at a higher salary.

Because he has family in the area, Hall said, he preferred to be able to stay at SLU, but based on the replies he received from three members of the board – Bob Clark, Patrick Sly and Tom Keefe, who is also acting dean of the university’s law school – he feels his presence is definitely not wanted.

“The responses were very surprising to me,” he wrote. “They called me a liar, greedy, hypocritical, unprofessional, and immature. I sent responses back to the trustees hoping to engage in a dialogue, but they ignored these follow up emails.”

The trustees who responded declined to give permission to have their emails quoted in a Beacon story.

In his email to the Beacon, Hall added:

“I think my own experience is reflective of a larger pattern at SLU. I know at least two political science faculty and six law faculty, all younger professors, who are leaving this year, largely because of the administration.”

Here are excerpts from Hall’s note to the trustees.

“… the university has offered me nothing to stay. I wanted to share my experience with you, not for my own sake, but rather for the sake of my colleagues and students here at SLU. I accepted the offer from Notre Dame yesterday, so I will be leaving the SLU community. And I am not alone. I know of at least five other faculty members in political science and the law school who are also leaving. But many good people are still here, and this university cannot hope to thrive without keeping them here. You cannot build a quality institution without hiring and retaining quality people. Yet, the university systematically encourages the best teachers and researchers to leave, and many are starting to do so….

“To be honest, even if SLU had matched the offer, I don’t know if I could have stayed here. I love my students and colleagues, but the atmosphere on this campus has been toxic since I arrived. Faculty members are repeatedly ignored by the administration. Faculty — even senior, tenured faculty — genuinely fear retribution from President Biondi....

“In this environment, no one feels safe, no one feels optimistic, and no one can focus on their teaching and research. As a young professor looking ahead to my career, how could I ever feel confident putting down roots at a place like this?...

“If major changes are not made soon, I believe the quality of teaching will suffer, the school’s national reputation will be irrevocably damaged, and SLU will continue to decline in the rankings. I urge to you to take action now before the situation gets worse. At the very least, I can guarantee that keeping Fr. Biondi will result in lots of faculty leaving; I am only among the first to go.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.