The Talented Mr. Spellmann

Lindenwood University's president may be a genius, a savior and a visionary. He may also be higher ed's worst nightmare.

Lindenwood recently improved its writing and reading centers and shored up the requirements for passing a composition course. But it's dropped the graduate-thesis requirement altogether.

Faculty say it's useless to protest; they're supposed to be "team players." Besides, if they're so goddamned upset, as Spellmann might say, why don't they leave? Age, money, health problems, a cozy house in St. Charles, loyalty to what Lindenwood could be, the scarcity of academic jobs, no research and publication to put on their résumé, love of the students, masochism, the thrill of achieving the impossible, cowardice. "They roll over and pee like puppies," scoffs one who did leave; a colleague who stayed says, "I can't tell you how many times I've sat in my car and cried, asking myself that question."

Dennis Spellmann recently received his 50-year pin and Silver Beaver Award, the highest conferred, from the Boy Scouts of America. He's proven himself. "I don't know that there is another college or university across the country that's had the results Lindenwood's had over the past 10 years," remarks Watkins, and even the president's detractors say it's only fair that the spectacular new Spellmann Center be named after him. Their hope is that his successor will be a little more humane, a little more intellectual, a little more judicious.

You’d think they'd struck gold. Construction's booming at Lindenwood: Above, one of the new dormitories; soon to come, the $12 million Spellmann Center, honoring the man who made it all possible.
Jennifer Silverberg
You’d think they'd struck gold. Construction's booming at Lindenwood: Above, one of the new dormitories; soon to come, the $12 million Spellmann Center, honoring the man who made it all possible.

Harmon just wants another Dennis Spellmann. "He's a true genius," he says. "Spending half-an-hour with him is more enlightening than spending a month with someone else. We move forward on major issues at an amazing pace -- which is very comforting to people involved with the university." The board has no plan of succession, can't bring themselves to make one. "It would be very difficult for us to go out and find a person of his caliber and have him report to Dennis," remarks Harmon. "Dennis is basically a one-man show."

The fear of the faculty is that the one-man show will end, and the micromanaged structure, unencumbered by paper trails or vice presidents, will topple. "Sooner or later," warns a former professor, "the college is going to feel the effects of this hubris."

If an institution is, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "the lengthened shadow of one man," Lindenwood now bears the shape of Spellmann's college-football career, his Marine drills, his Boy Scout rules, his business acumen, his impatience with intellectual trappings, his distinct vision. "A lot of students say good things about him, and a lot of kids say bad things about him," remarks Kurtz, whose own experience was wonderful: Spellmann invited the student-government officers to his home for dessert -- chocolate-covered strawberries -- and when they mentioned small problems, he took immediate action. "I know he's a very good businessman," she says, "but he was so gentle. A very gentle, kind man. Another time, I was in his office and he rolled out the plans of years to come, these aerial shots and drawings. He seems to me like a visionary."

Can't convince the cynics, though. "He's worked at places that are desperate enough to accept the consequences," shrugs one. Knoxville College, for example, a historically black Presbyterian school that, like Tarkio, did a post-Spellmann nosedive, losing accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Universities in 1997. "There are people here who sing his praises and blame the college for not being able to accommodate his brilliance," says a Knoxville administrator, "and there are people who cough and spit every time you say his name. He brought in some associates and swelled the enrollment with students the college was not skilled in educating, and we are still recovering."

At Knoxville, too, there were concerns about the overuse of federal grants, and even at Lindenwood, the shadow of Tarkio hangs over Spellmann. But according to someone who worked closely with Lindenwood finances in the early years, Spellmann never broke the law once; he just reinterpreted it to benefit his institution. "He infuriated the state and federal bureaucracies" (still does) "because they expected him to follow their procedures 100 percent of the way. But I sat in meetings with Dennis and federal people, and he wasn't a madman railing against the system. He threatened them because he knew their system." A former development director chuckles, recalling a capital campaign when "one of the auditors had a question about something. They went back and double-checked the standards and told Spellmann he was correct, and he said, 'I know I was, because I wrote the standards."

Shaping policy, developing land, infusing cash -- these are Spellmann's talents. But they're only half of the job description. "Dennis is out of his element as a university president," believes a longtime associate, "because he will sacrifice excellence for expediency. He thinks only in concrete terms -- land, numbers, dollars. He asks, 'Can we?' but never 'Should we?'"

Some say Spellmann's greatest strengths are beginning to work against him -- the vision so strong he's driven to achieve every detail; the conviction so staunch he can't listen to anything that contradicts it; the focus so tight he can't attend to anything beyond his own very concrete goals. He's so direct, he eliminates dialogue; so able to get things done fast, he destroys any chance for consensus; so productive he feels obliged to shame and goad every employee to the same standard.

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