SLU's interim president seeks better communication
This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Bill Kauffman has been interim president at Saint Louis University since Sept. 1, but his 18 years as the university’s general counsel still contribute to a lawyerly manner.
In a wide-ranging interview in the board room at DuBourg Hall, Kauffman generally paused quietly before answering questions, then responded in measured, reserved tones.
Not that his demeanor showed a lack of enthusiasm for his temporary position or for the university that is working to heal a prolonged rift between faculty and students who felt disrespected by the Rev. Lawrence Biondi, who ultimately retired from his job as president after 26 years.
When Kauffman was asked by board chairman Joe Adorjan to head the university – with the help of five senior administrators who will make up what is called the office of the chairman -- he said he it took him about two seconds to say yes.
“I believe in this university,” he said. “I’ve been here now over 18 1-2 years. I have great regard for my colleagues on the staff, and I believe they have great regard for the university.
“I think that if anything, the last 2 1-2 months have confirmed my belief and my confidence in this university.”
During that period, Kauffman said he has asked many people on the SLU campus the same questions: Tell me what’s on your mind. Tell me how you’re doing. What are your aspirations for the university?
Given the turmoil of the past year, the answers are not surprising.
“The opportunity for people to be heard, particularly in a university setting, is really critical,” he said. “One could not be a part of this university community for 18 1-2 years without formulating some judgments about how we have traditionally done business.
“I have some sense that the biggest challenge at the university was communication. Similarly, because of what I’ve done for all of my career, I also understand how much process matters. In some cases, the process you follow is more important than the decision you make. I understand that, and I’m committed to that.”
He said he has met with a variety of groups, from faculty to staff to students.
“When I took the job, I promised that I would collaborate, that I would listen and I would work hard,” he said. “I have ben reaching out to anyone who wants to talk, anyone who wants to meet. That has been very satisfying.
“I actually have enjoyed every one of those meetings, and I have learned something at every one as well.”
Not living in the past
One topic Kauffman wasn’t too eager to communicate about, though, was the campus strife that ended in Biondi’s departure. No matter how the topic was broached, his response was pretty much the same, with echoes of Mark McGwire’s response to congressional efforts to discuss whether he used performance-enhancing drugs – he wasn’t there to talk about the past.
Kauffman put it this way:
“What I’ve been saying to the community is that we can all remember the history. We should remember the history. But we can’t live in it. My interest is today, tomorrow and the day after that.
“I want the university to come together, to work effectively as a team and put the university in the best position we can for our new president. To do so is truly a team effort.”
One area that needs attention became clear after a campus climate survey was conducted by SLU earlier this year. Kauffman didn’t want to get into the copyright infringement lawsuit his office threatened against the university’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors if it went ahead with a similar survey, saying, “I really am trying to focus on this being a new day.”
But he did address issues that the SLU-sanctioned survey revealed concerning process and communication and what the new day has done to improve what was a contentious situation.
“I would like to think we have a better tone on campus,” Kauffman said, “in terms of people feeling they have opportunities to be engaged. I don’t want to be so bold to say that it absolutely is better, but it’s certainly my desire to make things better, and the senior administration is working very diligently to make my wish become reality.”
Another focus he said needs more attention is more external – the perception from ratings such as those in U.S. News & World Report that SLU is not as strong as it used to be, in several areas. The latest ratings saw the university drop out of the top 100, to No. 101 – not a strong selling point with prospective faculty members or students.
While SLU needs to pay attention to such numbers, Kauffman said the spotlight needs to show a broader picture.
“The university community must be interested in the various scorecards that seem to be very popular,” he said, “whether it is from the Department of Education or a rating from U.S. News & World Report or the Princeton Review. We have to be interested in it because the people who apply to our institution may use that information. So we take the ratings, for better or worse, seriously.
“We actually have established a task force at the university to review and monitor the various categories. We certainly want to move in the opposite direction from which we have been moving. At the same time, we believe those ratings don’t capture everything relative to what occurs for our students at Saint Louis University.
“I can tell you that the Catholic Jesuit mission of the university is being lived out by faculty and staff, in the education they are bringing to our students, and that is something the ratings do not address, do not capture. So while there may be attention to the ratings, I firmly believe there is more to the story of value that Saint Louis University brings to our students.”
And on the two-word phrase that generated much of the dissent from faculty members, shared governance, Kauffman had this to say:
“There are books on the subject of shared governance, so I’m not going to try to define it in this setting. It is a term for which most people have an idea of what it is, and most people disagree about what it is. But nonetheless, a process needs to consider what the respective interests are.
“Certainly as it relates to academic matters, it is absolutely critical that there is meaningful communication and that views of the people in a position to know are appropriately considered.
On money, MOOCs and benefits
On other campus topics, Kauffman had this to say:
-- Though he wouldn’t go into details, he said the university has moved to reverse some decisions made by Biondi on recommended raises for faculty members who had been active in protests against the departed president.
“There were some challenges from some faculty members related to compensation,” he said. “I feel that we were successful in resolving those issues going forward.”
-- He acknowledged SLU’s involvement in online learning, such as so-called MOOCs, or massive open online courses, has not been particularly active so far. But he noted that higher education is still debating the quality of such courses and how to measure what is being delivered to students.
“Most universities are still in the process of trying to assess that before they get on board,” Kauffman said. “But it clearly it's something to which we must be attentive.”
-- With the university’s 200th birthday in 2018, he said planning is definitely proceeding while the search is conducted for a new president. But final decisions will wait until the search is completed and the final candidate arrives on campus. The target date for that to occur is July.
-- An issue that has been discussed on campus for some time, benefits for spouses in same-sex relationships, “is clearly something we have to pay attention to in a relatively short period of time,” Kauffman said.
-- Asked whether Biondi, now president emeritus, remains on campus and whether the two have talked about university business, Kauffman said he sometimes sees the former president at SLU functions, though Biondi plans to go abroad shortly for a sabbatical.
“Very early on,” Kauffman added, “he said he would be happy to help me in any way he could. But as yet I have not had any circumstances in which to reach out. I don’t know what they would be, but anything is possible.”
So given his obvious regard for SLU, the people who work there and the students who attend, has his experience as interim president given Kauffman a sense that he might want the job permanently?
Kauffman brought to the president’s office not only his experience at SLU but a total of more than 40 years in higher education. He counts off 32 presidents he has worked with in a career that includes time at public university systems in Kansas, Pennsylvania and Alaska.
But he still isn’t interested in the top job at SLU.
“I was very pleased being the general counsel for the university for these many years,” he said, “and I feel that’s really the way I can bring the greatest contributions to the university community.
“I am honored to be interim president. I was honored to be asked, and I am honored to work with a lot more wonderful people in this capacity, but I think there are a lot more qualified people out there than me.”