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As SLU standoff persists, so does faculty mistrust

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 13, 2012 - Leaders of the Saint Louis University Faculty Senate say their talks with members of the school’s board of trustees about the fate of President Lawrence Biondi represents an unprecedented bridge of communication.

But based on questions from professors at Tuesday afternoon’s special senate meeting, that bridge will have to extend a long way before faculty members will have a strong sense of confidence or trust in the people who run the university, either on the board or in the administration.

Since the senate voted overwhelmingly on Oct. 30 for a motion of no confidence in Biondi, the focus has moved to the SLU board of trustees, who are the only ones who can determine what comes next as far as Biondi's presidency is concerned

Initially, the trustees responded to the no-confidence vote with a plan to conduct a survey of the university community to determine attitudes toward the current situation. But the senate quickly said that such a move would be considered a delaying tactic that would not help resolve the standoff.

Then, last Thursday, members of the executive committees of both the senate and the board met for two hours in what Mark Knuepfer, president of the senate, told Tuesday’s meeting was a frank discussion between representatives of two groups that had never sat down together before.

Primarily, Knuepfer and other leaders of the senate told the meeting, the faculty members talked and the trustees listened. Knuepfer said two board members were attending Tuesday’s meeting as well but did not want to be identified because they were only there to hear faculty concerns, not to speak themselves.

Now, Knuepfer, a professor of pharmacology, said, “in my view it is completely up to the Board of Trustees to act on the motion that we approved.” The next trustees’ meeting is in December.

After the senate meeting, a university spokesman released a statement that said:

“The university believes that last week’s discussion between the leadership of the Faculty Senate and the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees set the stage for addressing concerns in a manner that reflects the mission of the university and is in the best interest of students, faculty and the entire SLU community.”

How talks between the two sides progress, and where they lead, took up most of a discussion that lasted more than 90 minutes Tuesday afternoon on the university’s medical campus.

Knuepfer and other six senate leaders who met with the five trustees stressed that both sides wanted to keep the substance of their meeting confidential, but he would say that “we talked about everything that has been talked about in our meetings…. We basically explained why we are where we are.”

Where they are is demanding that both Biondi and his vice president for academic affairs, Manoj Patankar, be fired for many reasons, primarily because of plans they made that would have changed the university’s tenure rules and because the administration ignores requirements of shared governance with members of the faculty.

Knuepfer noted that as far as Patankar goes, he was hired by Biondi, not the board, so responsibility for his continued employment lies with the university president. But, he said, the trustees have heard clearly that their proposed survey would not be welcomed, and the idea appears to be off the table.

He said repeatedly that the meeting held with the trustees’ committee represents an important first step. “I think we’ve opened the door now,” Knuepfer said. “I think we can have a conversation.”

As the questions and comments progressed, it became clear many faculty members were concerned at how smoothly the cooperation between professors and trustees would move forward from here. And they were suspicious about how much the trustees actually would pay attention to their concerns.

Trying to allay those fears, other leaders of the senate who attended the meeting assured the audience that the trustees really appeared to be interested in what they had to say.

“They did more listening than anything,” said Chris Sebelski, a professor of physical therapy, said. “We did a lot of talking.”

Greg Marks, a professor of mathematics, added: “We weren’t making deals with them.”

On the issue of making sure the administration works with faculty to formulate policy, rather than dictating it, Jane Turner, president-elect of the senate, said:

“I don’t think shared governance is the issue. I think it’s the way it is practiced by certain leaders.”

Turner, a professor pathology, later added:

“I think they appreciated our discussion about how much there is a top-down discussion, not shared governance.”

Ted Vitali, a professor of philosophy, said he was concerned about how little the trustees really seemed to understand about how the university worked, particularly when it came to tenure. But, he added, the faculty representatives made sure they got their points across.

“We didn’t have a format,” Vitali said. “They had questions, and we responded forthrightly. Nobody pulled a punch. They heard what we had to say.”

At several points, questions raised the issue of a climate of fear and mistrust that has permeated the campus since the dispute between the faculty and the administration began. Several people were concerned about the veil of confidentiality that was drawn around the joint meeting between the trustees and the faculty members.

Tim Lomperis said that such concerns show how badly the relationship between leaders of SLU and members of the faculty has deteriorated.

“What we see here,” he said, “is the degree to which trust has been shattered, not just with the administration but among ourselves.”

Still, when one member of the faculty stood up to thank the trustees who were at the meeting for showing up, the audience applauded.

The next senate meeting was scheduled for Nov. 27; no one would say what progress in the dispute with the administration might be made before then.

“We still have a long haul ahead of us,” Bonnie Wilson, a profesor of economics, said.

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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