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Dispute with Biondi has long history at SLU

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 13, 2012 - When he talks about the escalating strife between Saint Louis University faculty members and President Lawrence Biondi, Ted Vitali makes it very clear that he takes no pleasure in demands by him and his fellow professors that the long-time head of the university be fired.

Vitali, a Passionist priest who has headed the SLU philosophy department for 23 years, has clear, strong feelings about the university, the man who has headed it for 25 years and his reluctant conclusion that Biondi’s recent behavior threatens to blot out all the good that he has accomplished.

“I’m profoundly worried about his legacy, which is magnificent, to the university and the city of St. Louis,” Vitali told the Beacon. “Without him, we wouldn’t have a midtown right now, because of the way he recreated Saint Louis University as an urban institution. You can’t be on this campus and not see his legacy. You can’t be in midtown and not see it. I don’t want to see him hurt.

“But he’s hurting himself. It’s heartbreaking. You are looking at a very great man who has done great things for the university and for the city of St. Louis, and at this moment he appears to be risking that magnificent legacy. That’s tragic. I find nothing to cheer about in this no-confidence vote. This is a very sad and tragic moment. Tragedies are caused by human flaws, and I think the flaw here is Father Biondi’s judgment.”

Vitali’s explanation of his support for the no-confidence vote that won overwhelming support in the SLU Faculty Senate two weeks ago drew applause from his colleagues. Based on interviews with a number of faculty members, his view – that professors have taken their hard stance more in sorrow than in anger – appears typical. But it’s also hard to miss the measure of distrust and negative feeling that are present on campus as well.

“It’s been building for years,” said Steve Harris, a professor in the department of math and computer science who heads the newly regenerated chapter of the American Association of University Professors at SLU. “Father Biondi has always had a very authoritarian style, leading to missteps and provocations.”

Since the Faculty Senate voted no confidence against Biondi two weeks ago and sent a letter to the Board of Trustees asking that he and his academic vice president, Manoj Patankar, be fired, little has happened publicly.

Representatives of the senate and the trustees met last week to discuss the dispute, and the senate will hold a meeting Tuesday afternoon to which trustees have been invited.

How the standoff will end is difficult to see at this point. It has been a long time in the making, and it’s not easy or fair or accurate to boil years of actions down into a dispute that too often has become a question of black or white.

“Things are pulled out of this like it’s a simple concept story, and it’s not a simple concept story,” said Michael May, a Jesuit professor in the math department. “It’s not a question of whether he walks on water or he’s a demon.”

A question of sharing

To many members of the faculty, their argument with Biondi comes down to a two-word phrase: shared governance.

The concept, as enshrined in the SLU faculty manual, is taken by professors to mean that important policy decisions that affect their work and the ultimate welfare of their students should be reached and put into effect only after consultation between the administration and the faculty.

Too often, faculty members say, that process has been ignored. Instead of being in on discussions as policy is being formulated, they cite example after example where policy is determined, then professors are informed after the fact.

The most egregious example -- the one cited as the spark that prompted the latest situation to blow up into a crisis -- was a proposal to change tenure at SLU. It would have established what one faculty document calls “a single, unwise and unworkable point system for evaluating faculty, taking power to assess away from chairs and deans, who know their disciplines, and putting it in the hands of the VP and president, who don’t.”

“It essentially gutted tenure,” Vitali said of the proposal that was forwarded by Patankar at the beginning of the current academic year, then hastily withdrawn in the face of blistering criticism. “I don’t think he intended that, but it did. It meant every five or six years, every faculty member would have to prove their merit, prove that they deserved to be there.

“Tenure is a lifetime contract, a professional lifetime commitment with the university. If you have an underperforming faculty member, the burden is on the chairperson to deal with it, and there are ways to do it. We can fire people who are underperforming, but it takes a while. The burden of proof in tenure, once you get it, lies with the university. It has to prove you’re not performing. Professors don’t have to prove they are performing. With this policy, the burden was flipped.”

To Tim Lomperis, a political science professor at SLU, “both the proposal itself and the way the proposal was generated is what triggered the outrage. It was so typical of the modus operandi of the administration. Under the total fig leaf of shared governance, they want to do whatever they want to do anyway.”

How Biondi and Patankar reacted to the faculty’s anger caused further irritation, Lomperis said.

“There was nothing gracious in the behavior of either man,” he said. “Patankar withdrew the proposal only under pressure. The day after a vote of no confidence in him, he continued to defend the proposal as if he had never withdrawn it.”

Other proposals that have triggered faculty discontent would have increased the number of online classes, to 30 percent of all offerings, and at the same time reduce the number of small classes. Those ideas, in the face of what the faculty document calls a series of dismissals of deans and department chairs in recent years, would “dramatically diminish the value of a SLU degree.”

Strengths and weaknesses

That kind of emphasis on the effects on students of the faculty-administration dispute drew applause at the Oct. 30 senate meeting where the no-confidence vote against Biondi passed 51-4 with two abstentions. So did Vitali’s insistence that the president’s accomplishments during his years at the helm be recognized, even if he has lost his way recently.

“Even a powerfully great man can make one mistake and burn up his legacy,” Vitali told the Beacon. “I absolutely don’t want to see that happen to Father Biondi. A lot of guys won’t say that. But any of us who have been here long enough can see what he has done.

“I am not out to get Father Biondi. I think he’s tough as nails. But I don’t see him as some kind of a monster. I won’t have anything to do with that crap. I see him as a great and powerful leader, and he finally made a mistake that will wreck his legacy.”

Other views aren’t necessarily so charitable. Many feel that over the 25 years of his presidency, Biondi has become isolated and insulated, surrounding himself with people – in the administration and even on the board of trustees -- who are more likely to reaffirm his ideas than to challenge them.

“You want an administrative team where people complement each other’s strengths,” said May, “not reinforce them.”

A common view is that Biondi has been better at raising money and building SLU’s physical campus, which is decidedly more inviting and more vibrant than it was when he took over, than at building the university’s academic programs. Without a strong academic vice president, the balance between the brick-and-mortar accomplishments and what goes on in the classroom became distorted.

That tendency has become clear, many say, in a series of decisions in recent years, such as essentially dissolving the graduate school and putting graduate programs into individual departments, and moving the university’s law school downtown without consulting the dean – a decision that contributed to her departure earlier this year.

“He isn’t looking to hammer out issues,” Harris said. “He is looking for a rubber stamp, and that is what he got.”

Patankar’s proposal on tenure, and Biondi’s reaction to it, made the imbalance clear, Harris said.

“He used to be adroit about meeting problems and solving them,” he said. “When the Faculty Senate passed a no-confidence vote on the academic vice president, that should have been a wake-up call: Ding, ding, ding. Things are getting bad and I have to act. What did he do? He said, he’s my academic vice president, and you better get used to it.”

Added Lomperis:

“This reflects a man who is living in his own world. It really reflects people who have had too much power and have had it for too long, and they lose touch. Over time, very clearly, this president has lost touch with the academic universe of the university. Over time, he has come to see the faculty as the enemy, and over time, the faculty has come to see him as the enemy.

“I don’t think Biondi himself will do the right thing. He will insist on toughing it out. We are not going to let this go. Faculty will not be going back to their offices as usual. There is no business as usual anymore.”

A letter that Biondi sent out to the university community right before the Oct. 30 no-confidence vote in him simply reinforced that impression, Harris said.

“Had it been, can we not reason together, it might have had some positive effect,” he said. “But it was totally maladroit. He said, you’re all a bunch of whiners. The university isn’t going down, it’s going up. On its face, it was an incompetent response to the factual elements that had been assembled. It did nothing to address our grievances on the lack of honest shared governance.

“He sealed his own fate. People at the senate meeting said because of this letter, I now see no hope. He just went in a totally wrong direction if he hoped to come out of this on the upside. In the past he’s been an able negotiator with other parties and been able to calm situations and calm passions. This was more of my way or the highway.”

What’s next?

How can the standoff between Biondi and the faculty end? How will it end? The final authority on the president’s fate lies with the university’s Board of Trustees, whose reaction to the no-confidence vote was to announce a survey of “students, faculty, staff and other constituencies concerning the issues that have led to the recent faculty and student resolutions.”

The administration and board of trustees have not commented on the situation beyond the board's statement about a survey.

That path was derided as a delaying tactic in a letter from Mark Knuepfer, president of the Faculty Senate, to trustees. He invited them to Tuesday’s senate meeting, which was scheduled as an extra meeting as the situation involving Biondi escalated. But he doesn't expect any of them to show up.

The increasing unhappiness of the faculty is a disturbing sign to John Pauly, a former SLU department chair who left in 2006 and is now provost at Marquette University.

“One of the real concerns I always have is that when faculty get discouraged, they kind of slip into a low-level depression,” Pauly told the Beacon. “They say that’s enough, I’m going to do my own work and not pay attention to that. That’s not good for a university. They want faculty members to be excited and passionate about what they do.”

As far as the external effects that the Biondi-faculty dispute may have – on students who may be considering enrolling at SLU, or particularly on professors who might want to work there – Pauly said:

“Universities live on reputation. When there is that kind of a dramatic falling out, it makes people wary of taking on that kind of challenge.”

Others think the trustees need to find a graceful way of ending the situation. Perhaps, some say, they could move Biondi into another role with the university, then replace him first with an interim president who has the confidence of the faculty, then with someone chosen by a rigorous and open widespread search for a permanent successor. Under university bylaws, the president does not have to be a Jesuit.

With the student body turning over every four years or so, recruitment of students may not be harmed. Fund raising, one of the major roles of Biondi or any university president, may be affected more.

But depending on how the dispute is resolved, and when, Lomperis for one thinks the negative effect on the university ultimately will be reversed.

“It’s a sad story,” he said, “and an old human story you see repeated time and time again. I think there’s a profound sense that Larry Biondi has come to believe that he is Saint Louis University. And he is not. That is why I have said repeatedly, look folks, there is a world beyond Biondi. This is not his kingdom. Saint Louis University will not only survive in a world without Biondi, it will thrive.”

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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