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Academic vice president at SLU resigns; trustees move to quell protest

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 15, 2012 - Manoj Patankar, the vice president for academic affairs at Saint Louis University and a target of the faculty's displeasure with the administration, has resigned, the chairman of the SLU board of trustees announced after a trustees meeting on campus Saturday.

In a letter to the university community, Thomas Brouster said that he and Lawrence Biondi, the SLU president who along with Patankar had been the target of no-confidence votes by faculty and students at the university, hope to meet with the Faculty Senate in the spring "in a collaborative conversation about the state of our university."

Brouster also said the head of the senate would be invited to make a presentation to the trustees at its meeting on Feb. 9. Such a presentation had been a major push by the senate after it voted no confidence in Biondi and asked the trustees that both he and Patankar be fired.

"Please know that we have listened and we have heard you," Brouster said in his letter, addressing the discontent that has roiled the university for weeks. "We have reflected on what you have told us, and have made some decisions to not only address those current concerns but also set the stage for a more connected community in the future."

To replace Patankar, Brouster said that Biondi had appointed Ellen Harshman, dean of the SLU business school, as interim vice president for academic affairs. He said a search committee to find a permanent replacement would be formed, and advice of the executive committee of the senate would be sought in that process.

"Our expectation is that Father Biondi and Dr. Harshman will make substantial progress in improving collaboration and communication with all constituencies," Brouster's letter said. "The board recognizes that Father Biondi has served the university admirably over the last 25 years and has built Saint Louis University into one of the finest Jesuit universities in the country."

Brouster said that the trustees also approved a budget for the 2013-14 school year that "contains a compensation pool that is significantly higher than in recent years" -- a point of contention that has been raised often by faculty members.

"The administration and the trustees agree that providing significant investment in compensation is important in attracting and retaining the best faculty and staff for the university," Brouster wrote.

His letter concluded:

"It is our hope that all of these actions approved by the Board of Trustees today -- done in a spirit of collabortion and with the best interests of the university in mind -- will help enhance the sense of community that makes Saint Louis University such a special place. We all agree that shared governance is important to the life of the university, and an ongoing commitment to that process by all of those in the university community will help us move forward in a positive direction.

"As we begin this holiest of seasons, I hope we can all come together for the good of the university and for the benefit of our current and future students."

Reacting to Brouster's letter and the resignation of Patankar, Liz Ramsey, a first-year law student and one of the organizers of a protest on campus Saturday morning as the trustees met, said in an email that the moves are "a very small but positive step toward change. Our biggest grievances are with Father Biondi. There is a lot of work to be done and our votes of 'no confidence' in Father Biondi are still not being addressed by the board, not in their letter and not in any other communication that we have seen."

Bonnie Wilson, an economics professor, hailed the naming of Harshman as the interim vice president for academic affairs, saying that she has worked hard to improve the SLU business school.

On other parts of Brouster's letter, which reiterated earlier steps to improve communication between trustees and the faculty -- what he called "six important initial actions that both the faculty and the trustees involved felt were important" -- Wilson said in an email:

"I am pleased to hear Chairman Brouster report that the Board of Trustees has listened and that the Board of Trustees has heard us. I am also grateful to the [Faculty Senate Executive Committee} for their efforts to communicate and collaborate with the Board of Trustees. The six 'important initial actions' are welcome initial actions. To be sure though, they are unlikely sufficient to give SLU the sort of carefully designed governance structure it needs to advance.  I look forward to the development of the further actions that are needed."

Bob Cropf, chair of the university's department of public policy studies (and a frequent contributor to the Beacon), had a similar reaction. In an email, he called the actions "an important first series of steps in the right direction."

He added: "I see some hope in the use of the language, 'six important initial actions' but that is all they are, 'initial actions.' I don't think we'll see any backing down from the No Confidence on Fr. Biondi vote, at least I hope not. If anything, the Faculty Senate has its work cut out for it on this score.

"I think that Ellen Harshmann as an interim VPAA is a good choice. She has a great deal of respect throughout the SLU community. This will help with some of the healing that is necessary for the rest of the process of bring the SLU community together again to occur."

Brouster's letter was released several hours after a crowd of about 200 people calling for a change at the top at SLU marched, chanted and sang on campus as trustees gathered for their meeting. (end update)

Members of the university’s board, arriving for their 9 a.m. meeting at DuBourg Hall, generally paid little heed to the crowd that has been trying for weeks to get them to pay attention to their complaints about Biondi and Patankar.

The trustees’ meeting became the focus of the discontent by professors and students after both groups voted no confidence in Biondi and Patankar and asked the board that both men be fired. While the vice president could be removed by Biondi, only the trustees can remove Biondi from the office he has held since 1987.

As members of the board moved to their meeting from a parking lot on campus, many of them made their way down a walk lined on both sides with demonstrators, chanting:

“No confidence, no fear, we are SLU and we are here.”

Some individuals urged the trustees, “Do your job” and “We’re counting on you.”

Those sentiments were echoed in the variety of signs held aloft by members of the crowd that began gathering on campus around 8 a.m. They urged the university to be true to its Jesuit heritage and complained about the trustees’ hiring of the Fleishman-Hillard public relations firm, which urged trustees not to respond to communications from students, according to a letter sent by Thomas Brouster, head of the board, to his fellow trustees.

A sign sampling:

“Mr. Brouster, this is crazy. We pay for SLU … so call us maybe? From, SLU”

“Beyond Biondi – No Confidence in Fleishman-Hillard”

“No More Spin – Listen to Students”

“Biondi is not leading if no one is following”

“No tuition without representation”

“It’s our university”

“Disrespected, disdained and devalued. NO MORE”

“Do we get a PR firm?”

“We are SLU”

Laura Frye, who said she graduated from the university Friday with a degree in American Studies, showed up in her cap and gown with a sign reading: “I Miss the Mission.”

Ramsey, the law student who helped organize the protest and who has a political science degree from the university,  said Biondi had come up to the group as it was starting to form and asked jokingly if he could take their drink orders. But, she said, he did not discuss any of the group’s grievances.

After the trustees had all entered the building, the group gathered on the south side of DuBourg Hall, for a brief rally. Tim Lomperis, a professor of political science, thanked them for coming out on a blustery Saturday morning in the middle of finals and said they would march and sing. Gesturing to windows on the upper floors of DuBourg, he said, “We hope they hear us up there.”

The Rev. Chris Collins opened with a prayer, asking for solidarity with families in Connecticut who had suffered an “unthinkable loss” with the deaths of students and adults at an elementary school on Friday.

He then prayed that the hearts and minds of those in charge of the university be opened and asked for guidance for the trustees and the whole community.

Ramsey told the crowd that she is often asked why she came back to SLU to earn a law degree if she is so unhappy with the way the administration is running the university.

“I didn’t stay here for Father Biondi,” she said, adding:

“SLU is not troubled -- the administration is troubled… We are the university. They are not the university.”

The crowd then marched down Grand and through the center of the SLU campus, singing “We Shall Overcome.” Lomperis had said earlier that as they marched around the building where the trustees were meeting, they should recall what happened to the walls of Jericho.

As the march began, university employees brought large containers of coffee and hot chocolate for the crowd.

Sitting off to the side, near an entrance to the administration building, was a woman named Anita – she declined to give her last name – holding a sign that said “I Support Biondi.”

She said she had three children who had attended SLU and thought that the president deserved support, not criticism, for how he had transformed the campus.

“I think they work tirelessly to make this a better school,” she said of members of the university administration. “It’s beautiful, not only in their buildings but in their hearts.”

She said she wanted to come down to stage her one-woman protest to show that not everyone believes Biondi should go.

“It makes me sick,” she said about the demonstrators. “They are vigilantes. This is only going to undervalue the worth of my children’s education.”

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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