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SLU faculty leaders push for audience with trustees

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 27, 2012 - Leaders of the Faculty Senate of Saint Louis University plan to meet again soon with the executive committee of the university’s board of trustees, in preparation for the main event – a spot on the agenda at the board’s December meeting to press for the removal of President Lawrence Biondi and Manoj Patankar, vice president for academic affairs.

Mark Knuepfer, president of the senate, told a senate meeting on the university’s medical campus Tuesday that he and other members of the group’s executive committee “hope to make a very strong case” against Biondi and Patankar, who have already been the targets of no-confidence votes.

“At this point,” he said, “our mission is to get in the door on Saturday, Dec. 15, and make our case to the board members.”

The standoff between professors and the administration began building around the start of the school year, when Patankar floated changes in the university’s tenure policy. Though they were quickly withdrawn in the face of heated opposition, faculty members say the way the situation was handled – an edict from the top rather than a policy developed in cooperation with professors – exemplified the way Biondi and his administration operate.

Thought the SLU faculty manual says policies should be a result of shared governance, professors say they usually are told after the fact about what the administration wants to do rather than being in on changes from the beginning.

The Student Government Association at the university has also voted no confidence in Biondi and Patankar. Student leaders have said they would stage a march on the trustees’ meeting next month.

Knuepfer has said that the initial meeting between the two executive committees, on Nov. 8, consisted primarily of faculty members explaining the current situation and trustees listening. Knuepfer would not go into any detail about the discussion or reveal which board members were present, but sources told the Beacon the board contingent consisted of board chairman Thomas Brouster, the Rev. Richard Buhler, Kathleen Osborn and Patrick Sly.

Knuepfer said if the senate leaders are given an audience with the trustees, they will have a list of bullet points of their grievances against both Biondi and Patankar. While Biondi serves at the pleasure of the board, he is the one who would decide whether Patankar will remain on the job.

Knuepfer said he will strongly urge that the faculty representatives be allowed to make their case in front of the entire board, so all of the trustees will be able to hear their grievances firsthand. He said the case would be laid out in detail.

“We’re trying to stick with the issues that we can document and verify,” he said, adding:

“The most important thing is getting into that room.”

Because the next regularly scheduled faculty senate meeting would not be until the end of January, after SLU begins its second semester, the group voted to hold a special meeting on Dec. 18, three days after the trustees’ meeting, to hear what transpires and discuss what the next moves should be.

“We have to take a stand,” Knuepfer said. “But we have to be prepared for a decision we may not be happy about.”

Comments from senators and others at the meeting indicated little retreat from the strong steps they have taken so far.

Philosophy professor Greg Beabout – who spoke at a meeting on campus last week where Patankar was present and told the vice president flatly that he needs to resign – said that if Biondi were to remain as president, the result would be “real and lasting damage to the institution.”

The turmoil has reverberated beyond Grand Center. Knuepfer said he had heard from faculty members at the SLU campus in Madrid who were hoping that the decisions that the senate has pushed for would occur.

“They’re hoping that a change in leadership of this university will lead to change in leadership in Madrid, for the better,” Knuepfer said.

Apparently, though, the standoff between the professors and the administration hasn’t affected the interest of local high school students in attending SLU. Guidance counselors interviewed by the Beacon said that the kind of campus strife that has kept the university in the headlines for several weeks hasn’t reached prospective students.

“It has no effect whatsoever,” said Charlotte Ijei, who is in charge of counseling at the Parkway school district. “We have always known Saint Louis University to be a top-notch university, especially for our students who don’t want to go too far away from home. That hasn’t changed. They’re still applying to SLU.”

John Rick, spokesman for Saint Louis University High, said in an email that “while I have heard much said ‘out and about’ regarding the SLU faculty-administration issues, I can honestly tell you I’ve not heard even a speculation” about a dropoff in student interest.

“I can’t imagine that anyone would be impacted in his considerations for university by the SLU issues,” he added.

And Sharon F. Sevier, a counselor at Lafayette High School in the Rockwood school district, said in an email:

“SLU offers a great education in a great location. Seldom do we find that the campus politics, particularly those amongst the top administrators, affect a student’s decision about attendance.”

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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