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SLU's president, board chair meet with Faculty Senate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 22, 2013 - The long-anticipated appearance by the president and the chairman of the board of Saint Louis University before its Faculty Senate Tuesday was described by professors as civil but not necessarily a session that answered all of their concerns about the SLU administration.

The hour-long meeting was open only to members of the faculty at the request of J. Joe Adorjan, who took over as head of the SLU board of trustees earlier this month. He explained to the Beacon that he had asked that reporters be excluded from the meeting to avoid what he feared might become a contentious session that would not lead to answers to the strife that characterized much of the just-ended academic year.

Adorjan appeared with the Rev. Lawrence Biondi, who said earlier this month that he had asked the board to begin searching for his replacement after 25 years on the job. Also there were Patrick Sly, vice chair of the board, and Ellen Harshman, acting vice president for academic affairs. Sly presented to the faculty results of a campus climate survey taken last month among faculty, staff and students.

“I think it went very well,” Adorjan told the Beacon Tuesday evening. “I thought it was very civil. I think questions were very good, and we did the best we could to answer the questions to the best of our ability.”

Though much of the meeting was taken up by questions from faculty members, Biondi said nothing the entire time, a fact that Adorjan said surprised him.

“That was probably the strangest part of the meeting,” he said. “I was moderator, and I ended up answering 70 percent of the questions, which was shocking to me. Father was prepared to answer any questions. I don’t know what the deal was, but there were no real questions in his direction, like, answer this for me, Father.”

According to members of the faculty who were at the meeting, the sharpest question came from Greg Beabout, a philosophy professor who has been among the most active and vocal critic of Biondi.

About 45 minutes into the session, Beabout asked Adorjan:

“Are we friends or are we foes? I’d really like to be friends.”

The chairman reportedly said it was time to get over the animosity of the past year, echoing sentiment he gave to the Beacon in an interview two weeks ago.

“It’s water over the dam,” he told the faculty meeting. “We’re done with all that stuff. That’s what it is, stuff. Let’s get on with what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Adorjan opened the meeting by listing five priorities he said he had as he begins his third separate term as chairman of the SLU board.

  • He wants to examine the university’s entire communication system, saying that “a significant portion of what’s transpired is not the best communication in the world.”
  • He wants to examine the results of the survey, to “take a hard look at the issues that have been raised.” He added that there was “no surprise in the survey. That was the one surprise.”
  • He wants to improve morale and work on trust issues, so the board can get back to its fiduciary responsibility and faculty and students can get back to academic concerns.
  • He wants to improve the relationship with Tenet, which owns the university’s hospital, which he said is an issue “of the utmost importance.”
  • He wants to begin the search for Biondi’s successor, looking at best practices at other Jesuit universities but not limit SLU to looking only at Jesuits, now that the bylaws do not require the president to be a Jesuit. “The worst thing that we could do is to get a Jesuit in there who is not the most qualified person,” he told the meeting.

The climate at SLU

Sly presented the result of the climate survey, giving the average scores of responses from faculty, staff and students to a variety of questions, with 1 being the lowest score and 5 being the highest.

For most of the questions that dealt with issues that prompted the discord between faculty members and the Biondi administration, such as collaboration, appreciation of faculty contributions and the effectiveness of the president’s leadership, scores were generally low, below 2, for faculty responses. They were in a similar range for questions like does the faculty have meaningful input, is dissent greeted negatively and do faculty members have an influential role in establishing priorities at SLU.

In the interview with the Beacon, Adorjan said the board had decided not to release to the general public the presentation that was made to the faculty on the survey results, or the answers to open-ended questions. He said that information may be released in some form to the university in general by Biondi in one of his regular communications.

During the question-and-answer portion of the meeting, Adorjan noted he wasn’t quite sure how to take the results because he had no benchmark to measure them by. Expanding on the issue in the interview, he said:

“Is 3.5 terrible? Is 3 terrible? Is 2.3 terrible? We don’t have a comparable survey.

“If we had all 4s and 5s, we would all be happy campers.”

He also noted that the firm that conducted the survey had said that given the turmoil on campus, scores were expected to be low. “But yours truly said we made a commitment to do it,” Adorjan said, “so let’s do it.”

On problems with Tenet and the SLU medical campus, Adorjan said the relationship between the two “has been difficult” but can improve if the university works more closely with other health care providers.

“The whole issue is that as we see medical care evolve,” he said, “it’s terribly important that there be more networking. We’re up against some tough competitors, and I think we need to put together a better network.”

Would Adorjan be willing to appear before the senate annually? He said he would, and he hopes that over time, relationships between the faculty and the administration show continuous improvement.

“So a year from now,” he added, “we’ll see tangible results.”

Civil but not completely satisfying

Asked to characterize the meeting, faculty members used words like “civil” and “generic.” But their concerns about the administration were clearly not all answered.

As faculty members left the auditorium on the SLU medical campus, Jane Turner, president of the Faculty Senate, addressed the issue of why the meeting was open only to faculty members when earlier meetings of the senate had been open to reporters and others.

Turner, who said she felt the meeting “went really well,” said that senate bylaws said the meetings are open to faculty members, and if the choice was to open the meeting and possibly not hear the results of the climate survey and other information that the participants could offer, she preferred to close the meeting to non-faculty.

“There was a choice,” she said. “It was one or the other.”

Turner said that based on the fact there was only one faculty member who said that her question had not been satisfactorily answered, she thought that members of the audience were satisfied with what they heard.

“People addressed weighty issues and concerns,” she said.

Turner’s predecessor, Mark Knuepfer, who was president of the senate as the no-confidence votes and other issues developed over the past academic year, said he thought the meeting went well.

Adorjan, he said in an email, “was very open and frank in his comments. He expressed himself well and reiterated that the past is past and we need to work together to move forward now.”

“The faculty are pleased at this momentous occasion,” Knuepfer added, “since I do not believe that the chair and the vice chair have ever directly addressed the Faculty Senate in the past.”

Political science professor Tim Lomperis, who was active in the criticism of Biondi, was not impressed with Tuesday's session.

"First of all, not one question was asked of Biondi," he wrote in an email. "He is being treated as he is already history.  I almost felt sorry for him. The silence was really a complete repudiation, though Adorjan appeared to be unaware of this.

"And that brings me to the main point. I think the uniform reaction to Adorjan was that we were completely underwhelmed. He does not really appear to be up to the job. His answers were almost uniformly unsatisfactory. He seemed to penetrate each answer by an inch at best. He likened faculty to a labor union. When asked what he thought had happened over the past year, he said he simply did not know."

Lomperis said that given what he called the "devastating" results of the climate survey, Biondi had little choice but to retire.

"Adorjan professed to know nothing about academics, almost as if he were proud of the fact--despite being on the Board of Trustees and serving as President of the Trustees now for a third time," he said. "Clearly, he is reflective of a board that relied exclusively and absolutely uncritically on Biondi for campus communication, and simply reflected Biondi's own long-term insensitivity to the faculty and to the intellectual mission of the university.

"There was a suggestion that the Trustees form a Trustee-Faculty Liaison Committee. This is a compelling necessity because there is a Hell of a lot of work to do on this score. As a result of Biondi's prolonged tenure, we have a nearly illiterate Board of Trustees on the mission of faculty."

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