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SLU protests move beyond Biondi as standoff persists

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 4, 2012 - As the standoff over Saint Louis University President Lawrence Biondi continues, the university’s board of trustees doesn’t want to talk to anyone about the issue – and it doesn’t want to hear from the head of the faculty senate.

Senate President Mark Knuepfer has said that addressing the board’s meeting on Dec. 15 was a key goal in articulating professors’ unhappiness with Biondi and his vice president for academic affairs, Manoj Patankar. Both men have been the target of no-confidence votes by the faculty as well as the Student Government Association.

But after a joint statement last week by the executive committees of the senate and the board of trustees hailed what it called the prospect of “more frequent and effective communications throughout the university community,” two internal messages showed that the truth may be a bit more complicated.

First, in a letter leaked Saturday by a student group, Thomas Brouster, the head of the board of trustees, told his fellow board members that they should not respond to any communications from faculty, students or reporters about the situation. He also said the university had hired Fleishman-Hillard, the public relations firm, to help manage the crisis; the firm had drafted the joint statement issued on Friday, Brouster said.

The letter also criticized leaders of the senate for failing “to honor its commitment” to keep confidential the discussions that have occurred between the executive committees of the two bodies. Leaders of the senate have disclosed in general terms that the two groups met, but they have not revealed any specifics of what was discussed.

That part of Brouster’s letter ignited angry responses from faculty members. Then, the executive committee of the senate sent members of the group a statement that said, in part:

“We will not get an audience with the board at the December meeting but expect to meet with them soon and, as our joint communiqué explained, annually from now on. We are building a relationship that depends on trust with the board; to that end we believe that the overall sensitivity of the issues and the timing of the actions necessitate continued confidentiality of our other discussions with the executive committee.”

Knuepfer declined further comment. A special meeting of the senate has been scheduled for Dec. 18 to discuss developments after the trustees’ meeting is held.

He did issue this statement to members of the faculty Tuesday night:

"The Faculty Senate Executive Committee cannot at this time respond directly to the content of the recently leaked letter to the Board of Trustees from that body's chairman.  Our promise of confidentiality and its importance to ongoing discussions with the Board members would make any such response imprudent.  We do, however, want to express to all faculty and the university community our unwavering commitment to advancing the Senate's votes of no confidence in the President and the Vice President for Academic Afffairs."

Meanwhile, students and others are planning protests on several fronts as they try to move beyond Biondi and get their views known to a wider audience.

On a Facebook page called SLU Students for No Confidence – where Brouster's letter first surfaced – leaders are asking people to take photos of themselves in front of buildings named for members of the board of trustees.

They also want students to show up today at a Christmas party given by Biondi at the university’s art museum, ringing bells a la the Salvation Army, to call attention to what they consider to be underfunded programs at the university.

And they are asking people to take part in a Novena of Grace, nine days starting today when “each day at noon, a Jesuit from the SLU community will lead the novena prayer and offer a short reflection asking the intercession of St. Francis and St. Ignatius for our university community at this critical moment in our history.”

Of all of the recent developments in the dispute that boiled over right before the school year started, with a proposal from Patankar that would have altered the school’s tenure policy, the letter from Brouster seemed to touch a particular nerve in both the faculty and the student body.

Besides being angered at Brouster’s instruction to his fellow board members that they should not respond to any communications from students, both groups felt that his unqualified backing of Biondi was an indication that their votes of no confidence have had little effect.

“In closing,” Brouster’s letter read, “I wish to reiterate my support and that of the executive committee for Father Biondi’s continuing leadership of Saint Louis University.”

Among comments posted on Facebook in response to the letter were these:

“It makes me very angry and disappointed that in this letter (and in the email earlier this week) there is NO MENTION of students. the fact that this is OUR university seems to have been forgotten somewhere along the line...” – Beth Alberty

“I can't believe they would rather hire a crisis management company to hush everything up than investigate and address the issues we've brought before them. Unacceptable.” – Christina LaFon

“I once heard someone describe Biondi's circle as a 'culture of mendacity.' While I thought that was extreme when I first heard it, recent events have made that totally clear to me.” – Charles Michael Shea, who later added:

“The upper administration has $$$ to spend on a PR firm to help them, the staff, students and faculty only have social media. We must counter their spin by telling the truth through as many media channels as possible. They have the money, we have the media; they are the minority, we are the majority.”

“What the board doesn't want is press scrutiny and news trucks. If they're going to move against Biondi, they want to do it on their own time. It's like an owner firing a coach: they keep affirming to the media their support of the coach, and then they simply fire him. If they don't express confidence, then the media keeps circling and the questions keep coming. These are people who don't like being asked questions, especially by a media that is becoming more informed. Because the ultimate follow-up is: are you simply a steward of Biondi and his legacy, or a steward of the university? The two aren't the same.” – Grant Kaplan

A university spokesman has refused comment beyond the joint statement released last week.

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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