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.

John Nichols was the textbook example. The once-tenured chair of the math department, he'd taught at Lindenwood for 24 years and was president of the AAUP chapter. Spellmann called him a "featherbedder" and "rabble-rouser" and fired him in 1993 for insubordination. The case brought faculty criticism to fever pitch, and a group of senior faculty wrote board chair Ray Harmon begging for Spellmann's removal from all academic decision-making. Harmon simply forwarded the letter to Spellmann; he might not be an academician's dream, but he was saving Lindenwood.

He was also stopping "frivolous" intellectual pursuits. The man who'd been executive vice president of seven colleges at once was appalled that faculty might waste Lindenwood's time on scholarly research or travel. He reprimanded the dean of the science division, a respected botanist, for arranging to miss a few classes at Thanksgiving so she could do research in a Guatemalan rainforest. He told Nichols he shouldn't have left to attend President Bill Clinton's inauguration. And when another prof won a prestigious Fulbright award that entailed travel, a colleague says, "Spellmann was pissed." He wanted a student-centered college whose faculty stayed in their offices from 9 to 5 advising (or, as one wag put it, "manning phones as if they were collecting for a cerebral-palsy telethon").

Faculty salaries improved in Spellmann's years, rising from the bottom quartile to the top, but individual amounts ranged so widely, people stopped sharing information with each other. Spellmann's own salary certainly helps the average: The second-highest-paid university administrator in this area (and rapidly gaining on Washington University's chancellor), he receives $200,000 a year in salary, $100,000 a year for "consulting," an unlimited expense account, a $500-a-month automobile allowance and an additional 5 percent of compensation, plus a dollar-for-dollar match gets poured into his retirement fund.

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.

His faculty, on the other hand, have learned not to ask for school supplies. "He'll say, 'You've got your hand in my pocket again.' He thinks everyone's trying to beat him out of money," says one professor. "He thinks copy machines are used for personal reasons, so when you're trying to run off a test you can't find a damn copy machine that works."

Dixie Guyer isn't surprised to hear her brother is thrifty; she remembers him regaling the family with stories of petty theft at the Fort Worth Police Department. "He paid attention to detail," she says. "If you wanted a new pencil, you had to bring back the stub of the old one."

Lindenwood alumni, meanwhile, tell sad tales of the trailer park bought to house them -- feces from the evicted renters' pets, space heaters in the dead of winter, plumbing that ran to a washtub under the trailer. (Lindenwood is now opening two beautiful residence halls on the site, but it's slim consolation for the grads of the trailer era.) Asked for the most recent yearbook, Spellmann says it's still "at press" -- but the last one that made it to the bindery was from 1995-96. Staff worry that there are no health-care professionals on site, no drop-in counseling center for troubled students. "We are not in that business," explains psychology professor and dean of faculty James Evans, "and there are obvious liabilities associated with the administration of those services -- if a student files a malpractice suit, for example. But we have a full Rolodex of professionals; we don't let anybody slip through the cracks."

Academically, the biggest casualty of Spellmann's frugality has probably been the library. Six wooden card cabinets represent its holdings -- which doesn't bode well for their "MA in Library Media Specialist" program -- and theft continues to erode the small collection because there's no security system. Plans are finally under way to put the catalog online, but the new head librarian will have her hands full: She was just made dean of communications in addition to overseeing library operations and information technology.

An anonymous "LindenWorld" newsletter slipped into faculty boxes last spring announced: "President Spellmann has determined that it would be more cost effective to simply close the Butler Library.... A book sale was planned but sadly, there are no volumes of any value still in the building."

That newsletter didn't go over well; nor did an earlier underground paper, the Yellow Mole, or its electronic successor, e-mailed through an anonymous repeater in Finland. "I heard Spellmann tried to contact the Finnish government," a professor offers dryly. Spellmann says he doesn't remember a thing about it.

There's no student paper, either -- Spellmann took all the fun out of it by insisting on approving every word published. "Kids get work-study credit for walking around wearing sandwich boards: 'Choral Concert 7:30 Friday,'" groans a former professor. A current prof remembers watching student-services staff pass out student literary magazines, then scurry around taking them back because a student had slipped in some profanity. A 1997 graduate says that by the time she came, "there were no controversial issues ever," and students had stopped protesting. "I guess because you are paying money to go there," she offers, "and he can take away that scholarship and make you pay the full $10,000."

Even board meetings are unusually harmonious. "He doesn't want the board to know anything," says one disenchanted board member. "He interprets that as board interference. And he forbids faculty from talking to the board, calls that board interference." (Harmon says there's no formal structure for faculty-board interaction but plenty of informal opportunities. Spellmann agrees, noting that "faculty don't want board members calling them about day-to-day operations.")

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