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Commentary: If Biondi is so bad, why didn't faculty object earlier?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 3, 2013 - Now that the weather is nice again, students and faculty will be found outside protesting President Biondi as they did in the fall.

Protesting Fr. Biondi seems to be a new tradition at SLU. It certainly has not always been the case during his 25 year tenure.

This raises the reasonable question, why the strong objections to Fr. Biondi’s leadership now? He hasn’t changed, has he?

It is correct that Fr. Biondi’s preferred way to manage is still through the adroit use of intimidation. What have changed, however, are the outward circumstances of the university.

There are three answers to this question. One is that the administration’s emphasis in the early years of Fr. Biondi’s tenure was on bricks and mortar and building the endowment rather than academics.

There is no disputing that the campus is prettier and more cohesive than it was before Fr. Biondi became president in 1987. Furthermore, especially earlier in his administration, the university’s endowment increased at a faster rate than the other Jesuit universities. Thus, large-scale interventions in normal academic operations were not common, as the president focused his attention on other matters. However, in recent years, while building and beautification have not slowed, the endowment’s growth has slowed considerably.

In the late 1990s, SLU put a considerable investment in academics (largely the work of a strong provost), in an initiative known as SLU 2000. So, while the economy was good, the president could pursue a “guns and butter strategy” of investing in both the grounds and academics. Once the economy hit the skids, however, SLU continued to put its money in the physical plant, building, for example, Chaifetz Arena and the new Doisy Research Center on the Health Sciences campus. What began to suffer was the university’s commitment to academics.

Bricks and mortar can be molded to take the shapes and forms a builder wants. They do not protest, they do not educate, they cannot pursue the Jesuit mission of the university. People, however, are not inanimate construction materials waiting to be pressed into a mold. In 1999, enough faculty felt concern regarding the university’s priorities and lack of commitment to shared governance that a vote of no confidence in the president was discussed by the Faculty Senate and passed by the Student Government Association.

Thus, we arrive at a second answer to our initial question about the president’s leadership. Faculty and students did object to arbitrary and oppressive decisions, even early on. Fr. Biondi put down the incipient revolt with promises that things would change, that he would listen, and that he would take shared governance seriously. Fr. Biondi did not keep those promises, and distrust grew. In 2002, the Faculty Senate issued a report that concluded that shared governance at SLU is a myth. 

The third answer is provided in a new report from the Faculty Senate Assessment Task Force, which was appointed last fall.  The report draws upon the expertise of faculty from all over the university. Following on the heels of an earlier report that was commissioned by the Faculty Council of the College of Arts and Sciences, the new Faculty Senate report shows how Biondi’s heavy hand has expanded exponentially into academic terrain.

We have reached a point at SLU, the report extensively documents, where the university has developed a pervasive organizational culture of management by intimidation, dubbed by faculty a “culture of fear.” The report documents the ways in which this management style has weakened faculty, staff and student morale, reduced productivity, and brought about the very thing it sought to avoid: a precipitous decline in the university’s ranking in US News and World Report.

In short, while Fr. Biondi’s intimidation is nothing new, what is new is the unity of faculty, students and staff, who are no longer willing to obey blindly the ever-changing orders of a president who now refuses to even speak to the faculty he purports to lead. The new report by the special Faculty Senate taskforce conclusively shows the corrosive consequences to the university of the president’s management by intimidation and the culture of fear it has spawned.

While President Biondi’s leadership style hasn’t changed, the university community has. It has grown stronger, more fearless, and more outspoken during this crisis. This burgeoning new spirit of constructive engagement bodes well for the next 25 years at SLU.

Robert A. Cropf is chair of the public policy department. Wynne Moskop is professor of political science.

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