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SLU group looks to changes for school's 200th birthday

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Faculty, staff and students got together at Saint Louis University to focus on the school’s future, but their discussions inevitably concentrated on the recent past.

Wednesday’s meeting was billed as an effort to draw up a people’s strategic plan for SLU as it nears its 200th birthday in 2018. The call to arms talked about an effort to devise a “not-so-secret” blueprint, compared with what organizers said had been put together behind closed doors by university officials, then kept under wraps.

As a result, said a statement issued at the meeting, printed on bright orange paper, as far as most of the campus is concerned, “SLU has no strategic plan. Nothing to help us plan for what kind of university we want to be for our birthday: how many undergraduates, what classroom space, what size class sections, how many adjunct faculty, what research to encourage, how much fundraising aimed at buildings and campus infrastructure and at research, faculty retention and academics generally?”

Silvana Siddali, a history professor who presided over the two-hour session in Beracha Hall on campus, put it this way:

“This is not a constitution or a manifesto. It’s just a beginning conversation about where we would like to see the university going.”

Where SLU has been in recent months drove much of the discussion. With faculty and student groups demanding the ouster of the Rev. Lawrence Biondi as president of the university, and recent turnover at the top of the law school, the board of trustees and the office of academic affairs, various groups on campus have clamored to have more of a say in how the school is run.

Under the banner of “No Confidence,” with orange as their color, those behind the movement called the meeting. An ad hoc group, with no formal standing, they called the meeting on their own, publicizing it online and elsewhere.

As promised, there were light refreshments – orange soda, Doritos, Cheez-Its and Goldfish crackers – as well as orange buttons, wristbands and T-shirts available. Orange ribbons have popped in various spots on campus.

Siddali told the two dozen people attending that she was trying to “start a completely open, free-wheeling discussion about our future. As we are starting our third century, what do you want the university to look like.”

Urging everyone involved to voice their dreams and ideas and wherever their imagination takes them, she added:

“We can’t do this without the input of everyone here. We are absolutely open to every idea, every suggestion.”

From curriculum to governance to finances

As she wrote those suggestions on a whiteboard at the front of the classroom, various themes emerged around issues of process, people, academics and finances.

Questions that arose included:

  • how to make sure all parts of the campus community are treated fairly;
  • how do various groups communicate with each other;
  • how should the board of trustees be configured and how should it relate to the rest of the campus;
  • how can SLU’s Jesuit mission be emphasized and realized;
  • how can authority be decentralized;
  • how can decisions be made in a transparent way;
  • why is the school not conducting a fund-raising campaign in connection with its upcoming anniversary?

Those issues and more were the topics of small group discussions. The process group spent much of its time on ways that the board of trustees, which has the final say over the future of Biondi – who was described by one faculty member as a “rogue president” -- might be revamped to make it more responsive and more representative.
A consensus emerged that perhaps the board could be made up of three groups – one-third selected by the president, one-third elected by faculty and one-third elected by staff and alumni. Faculty balloting could be handled by an umbrella group that would represent all of the various schools on campus, to improve communication and trust.

“We have a lot of things to say,” Siddali told the group.

Such a structure, the group agreed, would help ensure that the president could be held accountable – a situation that could help avoid the standoff with faculty and student groups that has dominated SLU in recent months.

It could also make the board of trustees a body that could hear appeals of decision without leading it to micromanage operations on campus.

“What we need above all else,” Siddali said, “is a strong faculty voice that really has a say in the future of the university and isn’t just being patted on the head.”

The academics group stressed the need to connect the university’s core curriculum with its mission and the need to reinstate the position of provost, someone concerned solely with academics and not simply one of many vice presidents.

The people group said staff needs to be better represented, with no fear of reprisals for speaking out, and an emphasis on employees of the university over bureaucracy. On finances, the discussion centered on why SLU is not using its upcoming bicentennial as a focus for raising money that would be spent on priorities devised with input from the faculty.

University officials did not respond to questions about a possible fund-raising campaign tied to SLU’s 200th birthday.

With six months passing since faculty and student groups called for Biondi to be removed as president, and no action on that front, no one was clear on what would happen now that the discussion of the school’s future had taken place. Siddali planned to write a summary and post it online, but how and when the effort would proceed was left up in the air.

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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