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SLU board chair rejects idea of interim president

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 24, 2013 - The chairman of the Saint Louis University board of trustees has dismissed a call for an interim president to take the place of the Rev. Lawrence Biondi in the wake of reduced salary increases for faculty members who protested against Biondi’s administration.

J. Joe Adorjan, who began his third stint as the head of the SLU board in May, was responding to a suggestion by Ken Parker, a professor of theological studies at the university.

Parker said last week that because recommended raises for him and other faculty members who actively criticized Biondi’s regime were reduced, an interim president should be put in place while the university searches for a permanent successor to Biondi, who announced in May he was asking the board to begin looking for a replacement.

“Given the experience of this summer,” Parker wrote in an email, “Father Biondi is clearly not capable of restraining long established patterns of management by intimidation…. There can be no constructive recovery of confidence in SLU's administrative structures until this occurs.”

In an interview with the Beacon Wednesday, Adorjan said he did not think Biondi had acted improperly in setting faculty salaries and he did not think an interim president is needed.

“There have been no discussions on the board about an interim president,” he said. "I don’t believe we’re going to do that. That’s my personal view. I don’t think an interim is appropriate. We have a board meeting in September and an executive committee meeting in September, and I’ll have a better sense at that time whether people are thinking that way.

“It is the view of myself and several other people on the executive committee that it is not the role of the board of trustees to administer salaries. I know the allegations of retaliation, and I know certain professors are unhappy with their raises. Salary adjustments have been made every year since I’ve been around. It’s like running a corporation. Not everyone is happy with their raises, but we’re talking about a small minority of people.”

SLU professors who were involved in a no-confidence vote against Biondi and subsequent efforts to end his 25-year presidency at the university have said that when recommended increases were forwarded from their direct supervisors to the administration, many were reduced. One professor did a mathematical analysis that he said showed that such reductions could not simply be attributed to chance.

But Adorjan said that as far as he can tell, the salary recommendations followed the same course that they have followed for many years – from direct supervisors to the vice president for academic affairs to Biondi, who has the final say.

At a meeting in May of the SLU faculty senate, Adorjan and Ellen Harshman, the interim vice president for academic affairs, were asked about possible retaliation against faculty members who were critical of Biondi. They gave assurances that established procedures would be followed fairly.

Asked whether raises that were lower than what were recommended would constitute retaliation, Adorjan replied:

“I have seen no movement of anybody losing their job or changing jobs in terms of retaliation. I’m not going to comment on the compensation issue because that is university business.”

Around the same time that the news of the reduced raises came out, the university’s vice president for human resources, Ken Fleischmann, left his job. Adorjan said Wednesday that there was no connection.

“Ken Fleischmann’s departure had nothing to do with these compensation issues, period,” Adorjan said. He added that he could not discuss what may have led to Fleischmann’s leaving the university.

Other reports had suggested that the job of Rev. Michael Barber, dean of the SLU college of arts and sciences since 2011, may be in jeopardy. Adorjan acknowledged that he had talked with Biondi and Harshman about Barber’s job but would not comment about whether he was in danger of being removed from his post as dean. In an email, Barber also said he had no comment.

The pressure continues

Discussion of reduced raises began when the university announced last week that a pool of $13.4 million had been set aside for salary increases – one of the issues that faculty members had cited in their protests against Biondi. Citing the troubled economy, the university had granted no raises in the academic year that just ended or in the 2009-10 academic year.

In each of the two intervening years, 2010-11 and 2011-12, a SLU spokesman said, the university earmarked $5.8 million for salary increases. In the 2008-09 fiscal year, as the economic downturn took hold, the pool of money for raises was $10.3 million.

Parker, the professor who had called for an interim president to be named while a search is conducted for Biondi’s successor, told the Beacon he was surprised at Adorjan’s comments and said “there are obvious examples of retaliation in the compensation process.”

In his email, he said he had been recommended for a raise of 5.2 percent by Barber, the dean of arts and sciences. Instead, he received a raise of 2.5 percent, with no explanation for the reduction.

Parker cited several examples where he has been publicly critical of Biondi, saying that such opinions make him “a likely target” for retaliation.

He also noted criticism from the American Association of University Professors of the reduced raises, which the group said threatens faculty members’ freedom to speak freely without reprisals.

As far as Adorjan’s comments about the reduced salary increases, Parker said he wasn’t surprised at efforts to remove Biondi from the final decision-making process.

“The pattern of Father Biondi has always been to use administrators below him as cover for his actions,” Parker told the Beacon. “That pattern has been around for many, many years and is well known around campus.”

“This is something that’s been done by the president, and yet it’s over the signature of Ellen Harshman. No one who knows of the situation considers Ellen Harshman to be responsible.”

Asked whether the faculty unrest that culminated in Biondi’s retirement announcement is now likely to extend into the coming school year, Parker said

“If the board of trustees wants a public scandal into the next academic year, then they can take no action. The faculty are quite firm in their determination to maintain the public pressure that’s needed for interim leadership, until we can find a suitable permanent president.”

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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