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SLU Faculty, Students, Want Father Biondi Out

An archway entrance to Saint Louis University
chuteme | Flickr | Creative Commons

Last week, the faculty of St. Louis University, voted ‘no confidence’ in University President, Father Lawrence Biondi.

The vote is a shocking development at a Jesuit school which many credit Biondi for putting on the map.  But there is one very important person you will not be hearing from in this story, and that person is Lawrence Biondi. 

Last week the Faculty Senate voted no confidence (51-4) in Biondi, who has lead the school for 25 years.

Two days after the Senate’s vote SLU’s Student Government Association also voted no-confidence in Biondi by a unanimous 38-0.

Biondi himself has not spoken about the issue, beyond sending a campus-wide email claiming that some professors are presenting a “distorted view,” in an “attempt to divide the SLU community.”

But this has always been Biondi’s style, to remain in the background, to deflect criticism, while simultaneously shaping SLU according to his bold vision, and until recently, that vision was viewed by many as a success, but not anymore.

“With this vote of no confidence, it is based on a number of different issues that have happened over the last few years,” says Dr. Mark Knuepfer. Knuepfer is a professor in SLU’s Med School and chairs the Faculty Senate.

“The precipitating event was his [Biondi’s] denial to fire the vice president for academic affairs.”

Manoj Patankar is the Vice President for Academic Affairs, a job he was appointed to in 2009, after Biondi eliminated the position of provost.

Patankar is loathed by faculty at SLU, mainly for his plan to revamp the school’s tenure structure with a system of metrics-based criteria.  A plan Patankar says has been completely misunderstood.

“I certainly wanted it to be viewed as a reasonable process,” maintains Patankar.  “I was certainly open for a conversation where, if there was a miscommunication, I would have edited the language appropriately.  The concept of post-tenure review is not new, it is however new here.”

According to faculty, the post-tenure plan drafted by Patankar penalized professors who teach smaller classes, gave greater weight to online courses, and set unrealistic expectations for publication.  Partaker says the plan was just a draft, and has since been tabled. 

But the damage was already done.  Jay Hammond is the Chair of the Department of Theological Studies.  He says SLU’s idea of collaboration is token at best.

“They will get a faculty member on a committee, or they will get faculty members together and say, “what do you think about this?” and we will say “we hate it,” says Hammond, “and they will say ‘thank you very much you have been consulted.’”

Up until now Hammond says staff have been afraid to speak out for fear of losing their jobs.  A recent survey of staff fount that 70 percent of faculty say a feeling of “pervasive fear” exists at SLU, Hammond says he wouldn’t be surprised if he was out of a job by next summer.

The unrest between faculty and administration is not lost on students either.  Junior Christina LaFon says she worries about her own degree if more professors pack up and leave.

“A lot of students may not necessarily care about tenure,” notes LaFon, “but you find out that 75% of your teacher are looking for employment elsewhere….that concerns the students.”

To add fuel to the fire, this past summer Annette Clark, Dean of SLU’s Law School quit abruptly after only one year, leaving behind and scathing departure memo.  Biondi issued a follow-up press release claiming that SLU planned to fire Clark.

A spokesman for the University points out that under Father Biondi SLU’s enrollment has risen by almost 4000 students, the endowment has grown from $93 million in 1987 up to $850 million today, and a thriving urban campus was built out of what was once factories and warehouses—points of fact which are not lost on Philosophy Chair Ted Vitali.

“He rebuilt almost every department at this university,” says Vitali.  “We were really really at the bottom of the barrel when I got here 24 years ago; we’re not at any bottom of any barrel now.  We’ve got first-rate departments, we’ve got internationally-respected faculty, we did not have that 24 years ago and he’s behind that.”

The University’s Board of Trustees, issued a statement last Friday stating that based on the recommendation of Father Biondi, it will hire a consulting firm to conduct a survey of students, faculty, staff—a move some faculty are already claiming will be a sham.

Biondi has previously stated that he wants to remain president for the University’s 200th anniversary in 2018.  As of now SLU has no plan for appointing a successor, and the Vice President for Academic Affairs Manoj Patankar would not be a popular successor should Biondi choose to step down.

Follow Adam Allington on Twitter:  @aallington

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