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SLU faculty, trustees meet to discuss Biondi

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 9, 2012 - A little more than a week after the Saint Louis University Faculty Senate called on the university’s trustees to fire President Lawrence Biondi, representatives of both groups have met to discuss the unrest between professors and administration on campus.

Mark Knuepfer, president of the Faculty Senate, confirmed Thursday’s two-hour meeting but declined to go into detail. He said seven members of the faculty group got together with five SLU trustees.

“We had a very frank and open discussion,” he said, “but it was all confidential. Basically, the ball is in their court, but we had never heard from them before.”

After the Faculty Senate overwhelmingly approved a vote of no confidence in Biondi on Oct. 30, Knuepfer sent the trustees a letter saying that as a result of that vote and an earlier vote of no confidence against Manoj Patankar, the university’s academic vice president, the senate wanted both men fired.

The letter said:

“To quell the steadily mounting unrest among faculty and students, keep large numbers of faculty from leaving the university, restore trust among alumni and donors, and enlist robust collaboration in setting the university on a new course, we are convinced that the proper step for the board of trustees is to remove Fr. Biondi from the office of president of Saint Louis University and Dr. Patankar from the office of vice president for academic affairs.”

The trustees’ only public response came the next day, in a statement that said it planned “to engage an external, independent consulting firm to conduct an extensive survey of Saint Louis University students, faculty, staff and other constituencies concerning the issues that have led to the recent faculty and student resolutions.”

In response, Knuepfer and members of the senate’s executive committee wrote to Thomas Brouster, president of the board of trustees, and other members of the board, saying that “the only means to resolve these issues is not to delay a decision on your part by having a survey conducted, but for the Board of Trustees to openly and directly communicate with the students and faculty and, just as importantly, to remove Vice President Patankar and President Biondi from office.”

Until Thursday’s meeting, Knuepfer told the Beacon on Friday, there had been no direct communication between the trustees and members of the faculty, so it wasn’t clear that the faculty’s message was being heard.

“With all the newspaper reports and all the documents involved,” he said, “it was very difficult to get a handle on what the faculty did.”

Knuepfer said there was some discussion between the two sides, “but mostly they listened.” Asked about their reaction, he added: “They were pretty circumspect. We’re asking them to do a very serious thing. It’s very serious when you say you want the president removed. But it was easier to communicate in person.”

The next step is unclear. Some faculty members want to be represented at the trustees’ meeting in December, but Knuepfer said that remains a long way off. More immediate is an emergency meeting of the Faculty Senate on Tuesday, where members of the board of trustees have been invited to attend. Asked if he expected any trustees to show up, he said:

“I would be shocked if they did. I wouldn’t. But I don’t think it’s important. What I told the faculty senators is that now we know they have heard our side of the story. I wasn’t sure of that before.”

Clayton Berry, a university spokesman who has been designated the point person for a response from the trustees, released this statement late Friday:

"The Executive Committee of the SLU Board of Trustees invited representatives from the Faculty Senate to a meeting Thursday afternoon to discuss issues. This meeting was intended for the Trustees to listen to the faculty and better understand the issues of concern. It also was a first step in helping the University develop long-term solutions that address these issues. The University will release more information about this when it becomes available."

Long-smoldering dispute

The dispute between the faculty and the SLU administration has been smoldering for weeks, touched off in the fall by Patankar's proposal for a new system to evaluate professors. The administration withdrew the proposal in the face of long and loud protest, but to many members of the faculty it was an indication of a total disregard on the part of Biondi to engage in shared governance as called for by university procedures.

Many members of the faculty have cited other examples, including the sudden departure in August of Annette Clark, dean of the law school. Depending on which side you believe, she either quit or was fired by Biondi.

That atmosphere has created a climate that many faculty members and students say is intimidating, where speaking out against the university administration is viewed as an act that is likely to have negative consequences.

But the actions voted against Biondi and Patankar have emboldened many who say they have not wanted to speak out before.

Tim Lomperis, a professor of political science, put it this way:

“I have stepped out of this climate of fear.”

Besides the vote of no confidence by the Faculty Senate last week, similar actions have been taken by the Student Government Association and the Faculty Council of the school of arts sciences, the largest unit at SLU.

Before the vote by the Faculty Senate, several members of the Jesuit faculty at the university wrote a letter to colleagues, talking about SLU’s mission and how the current dispute is “a critical moment” in the school’s history.

“Many of us have been working quietly to exert a constructive influence in the ways that we can,” they wrote. “We also wish to let you know that we share your concerns for the good of the university. Your desire to care for the well-being and promote the mission of SLU is very much in keeping with its Jesuit character.”

Saying that they would work harder to help SLU realize its potential to help provide the service for which it exists, the Jesuits’ letter added:

“Indeed, this is a teachable moment. Together we have the potential not only to set a good example for our students, but also to model, as a university, the way the world ought to operate.”

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.

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