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SLU faculty still seek meeting with Biondi

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The Rev. Lawrence Biondi, president of Saint Louis University, did not attend the school’s Faculty Senate meeting as originally scheduled on Tuesday, but his presence was definitely felt.

Much of the meeting was spent discussing the draft of a senate report that found Biondi’s leadership was subpar, a reason for what a task force found to be SLU’s decline in many areas. His style was characterized as management by intimidation.

And at the end of the meeting, senators unanimously passed a motion to schedule a special meeting on May 14 and invite Biondi and whoever is elected the new chairman of the SLU board of trustees to attend.

Biondi and outgoing chairman Thomas Brouster had been scheduled to attend Tuesday’s meeting as one of the so-called “six points” agreed to by the trustees at their meeting in December. But Brouster announced earlier this month that he would leave his post as chairman at the end of the academic year, saying he needed to spend more time with his family and his business.

Then the university said that because the two were supposed to attend the meeting together, and Brouster was no longer going to be chairman, neither he nor Biondi would be attending. The announcement brought a strongly worded statement from Mark Knuepfer, whose term as president of the Faculty Senate ended with Tuesday’s meeting, who said:

“This change in plans is particularly disappointing to those of us who have worked so hard to improve shared governance at St. Louis University this past academic year.

"President Biondi's last minute cancellation is not surprising as it represents yet another example in a series of missteps and errors in judgment on his part in the past several months, thereby adding momentum to the SLU community's campaign to replace him with a more suitable leader for the university."

A statement from the university criticized the statement, saying:

"The personal attack against Father Biondi from the president of the Faculty Senate is disrespectful and shows the kind of unwarranted rhetoric that has been aimed at the president, the administration and now at the Board of Trustees."

At Tuesday’s meeting, though, Knuepfer’s tone was more conciliatory. He told the senate that having Brouster attend the meeting if he was not going to be leading the board in the future made little sense, and he would prefer to wait until a new chair is elected, presumably at the board’s meeting this Saturday.

“If we want to talk to what the future of the board is and their interaction with us,” Knuepfer said, “I think we should talk to the next chair.”

He added:

“I don’t think there is any intrigue going on. I think Mr. Brouster has a tremendous amount of work to do. I know, having spoken to him many times, he was working a lot more than he expected to. “We have been promised they would meet with us this year, and weill continue to remind them of that.”

Several senators expressed skepticism that the meeting would ever take place, prompting the motion that a special senate meeting be called in two weeks, with Biondi and the new chair invited to attend.

Also raised was the question of when and whether faculty members would get results of a campus climate survey commissioned by the board; so far, the results have been available only to trustees.

Knuepfer, who helped put the survey together, said he expects to see the results shortly, and he will be able to share them.

“We want board members to be able to act on the information in that survey without being harassed or pressured by faculty,” he said. “If we don’t have something by next week, I will be knocking on their door.”

START UPDATE: Late Tuesday, Biondi sent a campuswide message saying that "recently, issues have been reported in the media and via social networks that I do not believe were portrayed with complete accuracy." He repeated reasons for ejecting faculty members from a student meeting last week as well as the rationale for the cancellation of his appearance at the senate meeting Tuesday.

He concluded: "Despite any issues — real or perceived — that we may have, we cannot forget that we share a common goal, and that is giving our students the best SLU education possible. And, as I have stated before, I believe that if we can all work together collaboratively, I am confident we will move forward in the best interest of OUR university." END UPDATE

As months passed since the senate and other SLU groups voted no confidence in Biondi’s leadership and told the board he should be fired, frustration has been evident as the president remained in office.

Knuepfer himself said after the senate meeting in February that he expected some action on the question by this coming Saturday, when the board holds its last regularly scheduled meeting of the academic year; then a $1,000-a-plate gala honoring Biondi’s 25 years as president is held at night at Chaifetz Arena.

“If they don’t take action by May 4,” Knuepfer said at that time of the trustees, “I think we have a problem.”

On Tuesday, Knuepfer said several times he thinks progress has been made, but others were clearly impatient with what they saw as little change in Biondi’s style of management and little indication that the trustees will live up to promises they have made for more consultation and more transparency.

“It seems like there are some things they abide by, and some things they don’t,” English professor Stephen Casmier said.

Report criticizes Biondi

Before the Faculty Senate meeting, the draft report by its assessment task force, formed to collect information on interactions between academic departments and the administration, was made available to the Beacon.

Using both survey data and personal interviews, it concluded that though Biondi worked in his early years as president to build “a legacy that we all went to preserve,” including many physical improvements to the university’s Grand Center campus, his management style has become so bad that it is “eroding the academic mission and the Jesuit character of the integrated university Fr. Biondi built.”

“Simply put,” the report said, “SLU is mismanaged.” The report listed a number of areas that it said is “characterized by repeated failure,” including:

  • Failure to make SLU more affordable for students and their families.
  • Failure to prevent precipitous slides in national rankings.
  • Failure to plan for the future.
  • Failure to maintain a stable, healthy administrative or academic culture.
  • Failure to maintain and promote the Jesuit and Catholic mission with the university.

On that final point, the report said that Biondi “has created a culture of intimidation that destroys morale, undermines collegiality, and breeds a system characgerized by distrust.”
SLU spokesman Clayton Berry said he could not comment on the substance of the report because he had not seen it.

Expanding on the atmosphere of mistrust, the report said that “penalties for dissent take many forms: raises denied, laboratory resources restricted, highly regarded deans and department chairs fired or forced to resign, lawsuits filed or threatened against individual faculty. Others fear retribution against their academic departments, programs, or schools through budget cuts, frozen hiring, or appointment of an unqualified dean over the objections of faculty. This systemic dysfunction hinders the ability of faculty and academic units to further the University’s academic mission.”

In terms of turnover, the report notes that “since 2004, there have been five deans in the Law School, five deans in Public Service, and five deans in Parks College, four deans in Public Health, four deans in Arts and Sciences, and three deans each in Philosophy and Letters and at SLU Madrid.”

Sometimes, it said, Biondi appoints deans who are vulnerable to administrative pressure; one current interim dean, the report said, “is an untenured assistant professor hired with little faculty input.”

Noting that Biondi has “touted his ‘my way or the highway’ style” of management, the report said that such an approach “is incompatible not only with the leadership of a university, but with leadership in any context.”

The report went on to say:

“The faculty of Saint Louis University have lost all confidence in Fr. Lawrence Biondi’s ability to lead the university into its third century. We make this claim mindful of the president’s many past accomplishments. But we cannot preserve Fr. Biondi’s legacy without new leadership.”

And it concluded:

“The way forward lies in new leadership that welcomes the role of faculty expertise and opens the door to the shared governance that SLU needs to succeed in a new environment that demands collaboration and diverse kinds of expertise. This is the best way -- and perhaps the only way -- to honor and preserve Fr. Biondi’s strong legacy to SLU.”

Also circulating Tuesday was an online petition asking signers to pledge not to donate to the university until Biondi is no longer president. It had more than 100 signers Tuesday evening.

“At the end of the day,” the petition said, “the Board of Trustees is the financial executive board of the private company that is SLU. Their main task is to look out for the long-term financial well-being of the University. In order to truly get the attention of the board, it is necessary to do something that makes a financial impact on the university.”

Among comments attached to the petition were these:

  • “My degree is costing me an insane amount of money. I cannot afford for it to become worthless simply because of someone's ego.”
  • “The No Confidence movement cannot be ignored any longer. It is genuine. The No Confidence votes and call for Fr. Biondi's removal have been substantiated over and over by facts, documentation, and the president's own poor choices ... particularly those of late.”
  • “I have witnessed many other professors and other employees of SLU leave in the last few years because the institution as it is is completely unacceptable. Excuses may be made, but the only way to fix this giant problem is to start at the top and work down.”

In response to Biondi’s decision not to attend Tuesday’s Faculty Senate meeting, a demonstration was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon at 1 p.m on the SLU campus. Marchers are expected to go past Cartier Hall, where Biondi lives, then to DuBourg Hall, the main SLU administration building, where organizers said they will attempt to deliver the questions they would have asked Biondi at the senate meeting.
“Father Biondi has shown that he doesn’t want to speak to faculty,” English professor Antony Hasler said in a news release. “He’s avoided dialogue,”

“If he won't come to us, we'll have to go to him.”

Following the demonstration, the university issued a statement that said:

"The University feels today’s march was a counterproductive effort that had nothing to do with moving SLU forward, but instead was just another unwarranted attack on the University and its president by a small group determined to undermine the leadership of Father Biondi. 

"As demonstrated by today’s gathering, these individuals were not hindered in their right to voice their opinions; just as the University has the right to say that this is all being done for show and to further this small group’s narrow agenda. 

"The fact is, the University is moving forward in many positive ways, and there are collaborative efforts taking place all across campus to ensure that SLU continues to provide its students with the best educational experience possible....

"It should be noted that the vast majority of the Saint Louis University community did not participate in this staged event. SLU is a community of 20,000 students, faculty and staff, and the overwhelming majority of these individuals are attending classes and doing their jobs today."

Finally, Berry, the university spokesman, said Tuesday that Roland Corvington, the former agent in charge of the FBI office in St. Louis who was named director of public safety at SLU in September of 2010, has left to take a similar position at Edward Jones.

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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