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.

By the time Spellmann accepted the mission to save Lindenwood in 1989, the college had an operating deficit of $1.6 million, bills of nearly half-a-million and a federal debt of $513,000. Enrollment was foundering, the gym was state-of-the-art for 1917 and every roof leaked. St. Charles County Community College had toured the campus and turned down an offer to buy it -- for $1.

Spellmann wasn't brought in to be president; the board, figuring they'd have to close anyway, had already named a bona fide scholar, political scientist Dan Keck, as interim president. But the board chairman just happened to be the voice of St. Louis, KMOX's powerful and curmudgeonly Robert Hyland, who'd led the Maryville board when Spellmann rescued that school. Making it clear that Spellmann would call the shots, Hyland sent Keck out to Spellmann's farm in nearby Cottleville for a chat. Legend has it that Spellmann talked for seven hours straight, and Keck decided he wasn't willing to play silent president. By June of 1989 he'd stepped down, and Spellmann was president.

Spellmann wasn't, as most people assumed, new to Lindenwood; he'd done enough consulting there to be named in an unsuccessful 1983 lawsuit by Robert Johns, a past president who hurled charges at 27 people, along the way accusing Spellmann and board member William Symes of invading his privacy with a background check and conspiring to get him dismissed.

President Dennis Spellmann personally presents a Lindenwood cap to each new student — then holds his faculty accountable for patrolling their classrooms to make sure nobody wears one indoors.
Jennifer Silverberg
President Dennis Spellmann personally presents a Lindenwood cap to each new student — then holds his faculty accountable for patrolling their classrooms to make sure nobody wears one indoors.

Symes and Spellmann were old friends; as president of the philanthropic Monsanto Fund, Symes had retained Spellmann's consulting services for seven years, and Lindenwood old-timers say it was Symes who later "played John the Baptist," convincing Hyland that only Spellmann could save Lindenwood.

Spellmann walked into a college that didn't have enough cash to make payroll and had signed only a handful of resident students for the fall. He started by finessing a $2.5 million note from Commerce Bank, which had turned Lindenwood down for a $1 million loan months earlier, by signing for $40,000 of it himself. "Kind of like key-man insurance," he explains. "You get a physical, get insured and commit to work until the note's paid. Over time, you develop a credit rating: At one point I had seven of those notes out at once, $14.5 million total. I'd go a whole week without sleeping more than 15 or 30 minutes at a time." He adds -- is he serious? -- that he really shouldn't have taken the Lindenwood job. "It's too close to home," he grins. "You need to have a plane ticket in your pocket where you can leave. But I knew the purpose could be rekindled."

Finding purpose is the man's hallmark. He says he advised more than half of his nonprofit clients to go ahead and close because they couldn't answer yes to a simple question: If this organization didn't exist, would you re-create it? Lindenwood, on the other hand, had a rich history, a strong mission and incredible potential, but "they'd forgotten what they were originally about. They'd become self-serving."

His first day on campus, he summoned a dejected, cynical, underpaid faculty who'd been watching their beloved college gasp its next-to-last breath for years. "This institution is starting over," he announced. "The old Lindenwood is closed." He described his vision of thousands more students flowing into a thriving, expanding campus, and he gave them all raises.

Then he abolished tenure, increased their teaching loads to five courses, required them to advise 60 or so students apiece and stretched their duties year-round. "I will pay you on merit," he told them, "and I decide what merit is." He rescinded the faculty constitution and bylaws, replacing them with a council of deans appointed by the president and serving at his pleasure.

Next, Spellmann got busy separating "real dollars from Monopoly money" and announcing the first good news: The unrestricted endowment contained more than previously thought. He swelled it further by reducing staff from 427 to 140, replacing some with work-study students and reclassifying others as faculty. By 1990, he'd restored black ink to the ledger. A delighted Hyland now referred to the previous decades as "B.S." -- before Spellmann.

By 1992, Lindenwood's enrollment had tripled. Impressed, relieved and wary, the faculty waited for tenure to be restored. But in July 1993, Spellmann was still claiming the state of financial exigency that had allowed him to, as one prof put it, "impose the equivalent of academic martial law." Faculty sputtered, but they no longer had any say. Accreditors from the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools noted "an atmosphere of repression and fear of reprisal" in 1993 but eventually granted Lindenwood full accreditation. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) cited Lindenwood in 1994 for policies "at odds with the general spirit of an academic community and demeaning to the faculty." But after three of four AAUP presidents disappeared from Lindenwood's faculty in rapid succession, faculty activism dwindled.

Profs did like the lightening of their committee load; they'd spent a lot of time spinning their wheels in the years B.S., and nothing had ever gotten done. But when Spellmann reminded them they were "free from the constraints of tenure," they couldn't help but remember the colleagues who'd lost their jobs challenging him.

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