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SLU criticized for reduced faculty raises

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 19, 2013: An official with the American Association of University Professors has expressed concern over reports that Saint Louis University may have reduced the salary increases for faculty members active in recent protests against the Rev. Lawrence Biondi, outgoing SLU president.

In a letter to Biondi, with copies to J. Joe Adorjan, chairman of the university’s board of trustees and others, Robert Kreiser, associate secretary of the national AAUP, said that he was concerned with what he called “disturbing reports about recent actions that you have apparently taken to reduce the recommended salary increases for numerous faculty members who have been vocal critics of your administration.”

The reports came after the university announced earlier this week that it had established a pool of $13.4 million for salary increases in the new academic year – more than had been set aside in recent years.

But that news was quickly followed by a letter to professors from the executive committee of the SLU faculty senate that said “a number of faculty have received contracts with token salary increases that are significantly lower than the increases recommended by their respective deans.”

Further, the letter said, there is “reason to believe that the affected individuals are persons who took public positions in support of the faculty’s vote of no confidence in the president. We believe that such apparent acts of retaliation warrant serious scrutiny and that the president should be held accountable for this action by informing the affected faculty members of the reasons supporting his decision to overrule the recommendations of the respective deans.”

Citing AAUP policy statements on freedom of expression, Kreiser said that it is “essential that faculty members have the academic freedom to express their professional opinions without fear of reprisal.”

He added that the situation as described by the faculty senate “raises basic issues of academic freedom that are of fundamental concern for our association under its longstanding responsibilities. We urge you to address the FSEC’s concerns by taking appropriate corrective action.”

A response from the university to the faculty senate said:

“As noted in a recent university news release, nearly 98 percent of all eligible full-time faculty and staff at SLU received salary increases beginning July 1. The email from the Faculty Senate Executive Committee references faculty who appear to be among those who received salary increases for this fiscal year.

“The salary review process was the same this year as it has been for the past 30 years, and each year some salary recommendations — faculty and staff — are increased and some are decreased during this process.”

Since Biondi announced in May that he had asked the SLU board of trustees to begin a search for his replacement – a move that followed months of protests by faculty and students – some professors have expressed concern that on his way out, he would try to punish those who had opposed his administration.

A university spokesman confirmed this week that SLU’s vice president for human resources, Ken Fleischmann, was no longer working at the university, but he declined to say when he left or why. He said the university would have no further comment on the salary issue.

On the hit list

When news of the salary recommendations – and the reductions – came out, reaction from professors was swift.

Tim Lomperis, a political science professor, said in an email that he appeared to be one of 16 faculty members who had been targeted.

“That I was on President Biondi’s targeted hit list, I will wear as a badge of honor for the rest of my life,” Lomperis wrote.

He said his chairman recommended him for a raise of 4.62 percent, but that amount was cut to 1.47 percent, putting him below the bottom performer in his department, despite the fact that he had the best teaching evaluations and had published a book.

In his statement, Lomperis added:

“That President Biondi indulged in such deliberate retribution against select faculty exercising their right of free speech will forever tar his legacy...

“That such acts occurred despite repeated public assurances from the chair of the trustees to the contrary is an egregious breach of faith on the part of the university itself.

“It is past time for those who hold the destiny of this fine university in their hands to end this wanton regime now!”

A statement from the SLU chapter of the AAUP about the raises quoted Jonathan Sawday, chair of the Department of English, as saying: “The system is supposed to be transparent, fair and merit-based. This year, in some selected cases, it looks like it wasn’t any of these things.”

It noted that at a faculty senate meeting in May, Adorjan and Ellen Harshman, the university’s acting vice president for academic affairs, were asked about possible retaliation against faculty members who were critical of Biondi.

“Adorjan and Harshman reviewed the established procedures for determining faculty salaries,” the statement said.  “They said those procedures would be followed fairly.”

The statement also quoted philosophy professor Eleonore Stump, who said:

"For years, I honored and admired Fr. Biondi, but now I am just ashamed of him. In an intolerable misuse of power, he has taken a personal revenge on his powerless political opponents. He has become a scandal to SLU and to the Jesuit order."

Statistical analysis

Asked how professors could be sure that critics of Biondi were targeted for reductions in their recommended raises, Steve Harris, a math professor who heads the SLU chapter of the AAUP, provided this analysis:

He said that data from the administration say that no more than 20 faculty members had their recommended raises reduced, and that all of them are in the college of arts and sciences, which has 320 faculty members. He also estimated that no more than 40 A&S faculty members could be characterized as outspoken critics of Biondi, and the AAUP chapter has received reports from 14 of those who reported having their raises cut.

So, he asked: Is it reasonable to suppose that, just by chance, 14 or more of those 20 were in the class of outspoken political opponents, numbering no more than 40?  If the answer to that is no, he said, then one can conclude mathematically that outspoken opponents were treated differently than others for salary scrutiny.

Harris said that using what is called the Bernoulli distribution – stay with us here, even though we said there would be no math – the answer is this: The probability of getting 14 or more of the 20 samples to be outspoken opponents, assuming all faculty are treated equally, is less than .00000001.

In other words, the likelihood of getting 14 or more opponents when sampling 20 out of the total 320 salaries, assuming all salaries are treated the same, is less than 1 in a hundred million.

This is “conclusive proof,” Harris said, that publicly outspoken opponents were treated differently.

He later amended his conclusion, saying that new information indicates that the likelihood of at least 14 of the lowered raises coming from outspoken opponents, just by chance, is no more than 1 in a hundred billion.

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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