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SLU students, faculty want to move forward in dispute with administration

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 20, 2012 - While a few dozen students and professors met at Saint Louis University to discuss strategies to resolve the standoff that has pitted faculty members and students against the administration, the man who sparked the crisis sat quietly at the back of the auditorium and took notes.

Manoj Patankar, the university’s vice president for academic affairs, slipped into Kelley Auditorium on the SLU campus about 15 minutes into the session called late Monday afternoon by the group known as SLU Students for No Confidence.

It came in the wake of no-confidence votes against Patankar and his boss, university President Lawrence Biondi, by both the Faculty Senate and the Student Government Association.

Both groups want the two top administration officials ousted from their jobs – an action that Biondi could take against Patankar but only the university’s Board of Trustees could take against Biondi. Students announced at Monday’s meeting plans for a march on campus when the trustees meet on Dec. 15.

With professors and student leaders laying out complaints against how the administration has violated a campus requirement for shared governance – sharing with faculty members responsibility for policies that affect academics at SLU – Patankar sat impassively in an aisle seat three rows from the back of the auditorium.

Given an opportunity to speak, he waved it off with a tight smile. Asked after the meeting was over what he thought of what was discussed, he told the Beacon he wouldn’t comment. “I was here to listen,” he said.

What he heard could hardly have been encouraging. Students and professors talked of speaking out against what they thought was unjust action and trying to persuade members of the Board of Trustees to take action in the best interests of the university’s students and in support of its mission.

One of the strongest statements came from Greg Beabout, a professor of philosophy, who said he considers himself a friend of Patankar and wrote the foreword to Patankar’s first book.

Beabout recalled two three-hour conversations with the academic vice president in September, when the Faculty Senate first voted no confidence in Patankar, talks that Beabout characterized as difficult both personally and professionally.

Beabout said that he posed this analogy:

Suppose that the university’s athletic director had gone to Biondi and proposed a new way to field sports teams, that the athletes would be paid a salary. Such a plan, of course, violates basic NCAA policies and could never be put into place. But even if the plan was withdrawn, it would demonstrate a clear lack of judgment on the athletic director’s part.

Beabout said a plan to change tenure rules on the SLU campus – a plan that set in motion the no-confidence votes against Patankar and Biondi – was a similar violation of established policies and showed a similar lack of judgment on the part of the academic vice president. Even though it was quickly taken off the table, he added, the damage had been done.

“The proposal was so plainly in violation of the faculty manual,” Beabout said, relating his talk with Patankar, “that withdrawing it is not enough. You have to step down from your position.”

Beabout said that he thought Patankar would resign, and “I really wish you had done that.”

The best way out of the current standoff, he said, would be for Patankar to leave “for the well-being of this university that both of us love.”

Others who addressed the forum expressed similar sentiments. Bonnie Wilson, a professor in the economics department, said she had attempted to contact several members of the university’s board, but only one trustee – Robert May – had gotten back to her. Such a lack of response was disheartening, she said, and helped spell out what must come next.

“I believe it is the responsibility of the board to move us forward in a way that satisfies both the students and the faculty,” Wilson said. “If the board doesn’t respond, the failure will be ours.”

She urged everyone to contact members of the board with their concerns and make clear how important it is to make changes at the top. Email addresses of the board members were posted online.

“The board needs to know what we know,” Wilson said. “The board needs to understand what we understand.”

Ellen Carnaghan, chair of the SLU political science department, recalled the career of Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident who went on to become his country’s president. She said he helped the powerless speak to the powerful and showed people how complicity with officials doing the wrong thing simply keeps them in power.

She said she knows the fight against the university’s administration is not easy, quoting one faculty member as saying: “When you get into a fight with Biondi, there is blood on the ground, and the blood isn’t Biondi’s.”

But, Carnaghan said, people protesting in large numbers can have a strong voice, and the trustees must hear that voice.

“Traditionally,” she said, “they have gotten all of their information from the people whose work we are now asking them to assess,” adding:

“If we want to make sure it’s not our blood that’s on the ground, we have to remove inaction as an option.”

Blake Exline, head of the SLU Student Government Association, echoed comments from the faculty, saying, “Make sure that the board has a true understanding of the facts and about how they affect students.”

It is not clear where the board will be meeting, or even precisely when, but organizers of the march on its December meeting said the demonstration can be important even if trustees don’t see it because if it attracts media coverage and the trustees see that coverage, the message will come across.

What should that message be? Liz Ramsey, a first-year law student who helped organize the forum and a protest on the SLU campus last month, said that the situation remains fluid.

“Don’t make your banners too early,” she 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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