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Trustees' meeting takes center stage in SLU dispute

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 14, 2012 - As the Saint Louis University board of trustees gets ready to meet on campus Saturday morning, students are preparing to stage a protest march, and faculty members have compiled a new report detailing the grievances that led to a vote of no confidence against President Lawrence Biondi.

Whether the trustees will be paying attention is anyone’s guess.

Since professor and students voted to seek the ousters of Biondi and his academic vice president, Manoj Patankar, the next step in the standoff has focused on the trustees’ meeting set for 9 a.m. Saturday in DuBourg Hall.

A statement released last month in which faculty leaders and trustees pledged greater cooperation was quickly followed by a leaked letter from Thomas Brouster, head of the board of trustees, to his colleagues that asked them not to respond to students asking about the stalemate or to make any other public statements.

Not surprisingly, that view did not sit well with students, who planned a series of actions to bring attention to their displeasure. They were also unhappy that the trustees had hired the Fleishman-Hillard public relations firm to help handle fallout from the dispute.

A Facebook page called SLU Students for No Confidence urged students to join Saturday morning’s march, with the slogan: “Don’t spin the situation, FIX IT.”

Liz Ramsey, a first-year law student at SLU who also earned her undergraduate degree at SLU, is helping organize the march. She said that she hopes it will show members of the board that “ignoring us isn’t working.”

“This isn’t a problem that will fade away,” she said in an email message. “They have been told to ignore us and we want to show them that advice is flawed. It’s our university and we pay the bill. Without our tuition SLU wouldn’t exist and we deserve to be heard.”

Ramsey doesn’t expect to be able to speak with any of the trustees – “I believe they will try to stay away from us as much as possible” – but she doesn’t expect that momentum for the departure of Biondi and Patankar will fade during the upcoming semester break.

“I believe that the letter from Brouster really invigorated people’s support for our movement,” she said. “The letter made it clear that we are being intentionally ignored and I don’t believe the anger and betrayal that students feel will fade away any time soon. The break will give people more free time to read over documents and see the picture that is forming.”

Beyond confirming that the trustees would be meeting on campus at 9 a.m. Saturday, university officials and a spokesman from Fleishman-Hillard have declined comment on the ongoing dispute.

New faculty document

Meanwhile, a document put together by members of the faculty and sent to trustees earlier this week attempts to boil down the list of grievances against Biondi and Patankar.

The 17-page report notes that “an alarming number of faculty” members are seeking jobs elsewhere because of the dispute.

“Board action showing serious engagement in resolving the crisis at the top may help to stave off departures that will set the university back in quality and prominence for many years,” it adds.

The statement goes on to discuss topics that have been the subject of faculty complaints in recent months, including:

  • SLU’s finances, which the faculty report said have been mishandled and leave the university behind many of its peers.
  • A “precipitous drop in national rankings” at a time when the administration has stressed a goal of moving up into the top 50 schools nationally.
  • A failure to support academics, with many operating budgets not receiving increases for 13 years.
  • Unprofessional conduct by Biondi, who the report says has singled out faculty members and called them liars and suggested that opposition to Patankar stemmed from racial or religious bias.
  • Centralization of decision-making and a culture of secrecy, with Biondi and his administration failing to adhere to the school’s mandate for shared governance.

It concluded that the university has failed to live up to its mission, stating:
“In altering the relationship between the upper administration and the faculty and students from one of trust and support to one of disrespect, retribution, and suppression, the university has departed from the Jesuit tradition that is the source of much of its greatness and hope for the future.”

English professor Donald Stump, one of the many signers of the document, said it was drawn up to marshal evidence and facts that could bolster the faculty’s case against Biondi and Patankar.

“Complaints against the administration for mismanagement of university finances and poor handling of funding for academic programs have been circulating on campus for years,” Stump said in an email. “Without careful research and accurate information, though, it was hard to know what to make of all the stories.

“Since the board has been carefully controlled and isolated from the faculty and students for many years, it needed information as much as the faculty did. The first step for everyone -- faculty, students, and trustees -- was to do our homework.”

Like Ramsey, he doesn’t see that the semester break will bring any reduction in the clamor for the departure of Biondi and Patankar.

“No one should think that this is the sort of controversy that dies out over a holiday. It's been building for too long,” he said. “In my 35 years in higher education, teaching at five universities, I've never seen anything like the uproar against Fr. Biondi and Dr. Patankar.

“All through the fall, it's grown louder and louder, with new voices emerging every week despite the administration's long history of reprisals against those who speak against it in public. The faculty and the students are fed up.”

The art of protest

One of the actions called for by students was to greet guests at a Christmas party thrown by Biondi last week at the university’s art museum, to call attention to underfunded programs at SLU. One of the students who took part in the demonstration, Jesse Doggendorf of Dittmer, said many attendees approached him and shook his hand, even though they said they disagreed with the students’ opposition to the president.

Two others, though, were not quite so civil.

“One walked briskly toward students (me included) and pointed his finger in our faces – calling us morons and repeatedly saying, ‘If you don’t like it, get the f*** out.’” Doggendorf said in a letter written to the Beacon. “Yet another man called us disgraces, told us to move, and put his middle finger up as he left. I asked for both of their names, to which I received no reply. These men were very far out of line, and I felt personally threatened by both. Public safety officers, in charge of parking at the event, were nearby but took no action.”

He said he hopes the two men were not trustees, but he found it troubling that guests at a university function would verbally assault students.

“I believe it is time that the public hear the controversy from the students’ perspective,” Doggendorf wrote. “Groups inside and outside the institution need to hear and understand our legitimate concerns.

“We are this university. I am confident, after examining evidence from both sides and by having unanimous support from my student government, that Saint Louis University needs a change in order to fulfill its promises to its students.”

That view seems to prevail among many of the students who have protested and plan to take part in Saturday’s march. Ramsey, the leader of the demonstration, doesn’t see any satisfactory resolution of the dispute short of the departure of Biondi and Patankar.

“Absolutely not,” she said. “Trust has been so broken with these two individuals that it cannot be repaired. The only way to move forward at this point is with ‘SLU minus 2,’ as our supporters like to say.”

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