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.

As for disclosure on federally required crime logs, the U.S. Department of Education sounded amused last summer when its reviewers reminded Lindenwood that it wasn't enough to include only those crime reports you believed were "founded"; they should err on the conservative side and report everything. "We took exception to that suggestion," says Spellmann. "There is nothing in the regulations that says you report unfounded claims."

Faculty, meanwhile, say they've been told not to call 911 but to let someone in administration decide whether a situation is an emergency. A former professor claims that about $8,500 worth of equipment was taken from his office (he'd brought in his own because the university wouldn't provide it) and the university would neither call the police nor reimburse him. "There were muddy footprints on the ledge, and broken glass, but within about 15 minutes, housekeeping came over with direct orders to clean up," he says. "Finally I called the police and explained, and the officer said, 'We have heard it before from this place.'" (Spellmann says he doesn't recall the incident but that he would never tell someone not to call the police; nor would he have reimbursed the employee: "How would I know what personal property someone took to work? That's a homeowner's claim.")

Bottom line, Spellmann doesn't like criticism -- the occupational hazard of university presidents -- and he doesn't like anything negative said about Lindenwood, ever. When people leave, they must leave fast, and those who stay must be loyal. According to several campus sources, one prof was recently rebuked by Spellmann for attending a sporting event with his old friend John Nichols. As for the various regulatory and accrediting agencies that watchdog higher ed, "If someone inquires, he goes to the politicians, has people making complaints and asking why you're harassing him," says one observer. "He punishes people who go after him; he just comes at you from every side."

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.

The chilling seems to work: Forty-two of the people interviewed for this story would speak only on the condition of anonymity.

Spellmann might not be a terribly tolerant sort of president, but he's brilliant at details -- and consumed by them. He insists that every window shade in Young Hall be kept at the same height; he once issued an infamous "toilet-seat memo" to be read aloud in class, urging males to put the seat down when they finished. He gives every new student a Lindenwood ball cap but expects faculty to police their classes to make sure no student wears a hat indoors. He has elderly housekeepers raking and work-study students picking up sweetgum balls, and one professor remembers staff shooing African-American students off the steps of Butler Hall, lest they frighten little old Lindenwood ladies from making a bequest.

Sometimes, though, the impressions don't quite match the reality. It's like the women's room on the second floor of Young Hall: The sign on the door proudly bears the familiar wheelchair logo, but there's no way a wheelchair could fit inside, and there are no handrails or other modifications.

Then there are the oft-touted accolades. "We were recently elected to a group of schools called the Best Christian Colleges," brags Evans. "It's very selective." It's a $19.95 book, published by Institutional Research & Evaluation, Inc., listing the 87 accredited four-year colleges that have dorms, financial aid and freshmen with grades or exam scores at least equal to the national average.

Faculty sharpen their critical skills by analyzing the way things are counted: Lindenwood's enrollment, for example, just sailed past 10,000 -- but that's not full-time students, it's "unduplicated head count." In other words, it includes the high-schoolers taking French for college credit and the ladies taking ceramics on a lark. The university has to count this way because it's run on semester, trimester and quarter schedules simultaneously, and that's not to mention the staggered summer courses and the new "January term" that packs complete college courses into three weeks.

Then there's the faculty-student ratio. Lindenwood claims 17:1, but its professors can't fathom how; they report 35 students in composition classes, 45 in literature classes, 30 in computer classes (with only 25 computers), nearly 30 in MBA seminars and overflow students sitting on floors because, when the student body quadrupled, Lindenwood added no new classrooms.

Finally there's their proudest statistic, the "placement rate," the percentage of graduates who land in professional positions or grad school within 18 months. A few years ago, Lindenwood claimed 100 percent placement, and now the rate's an impressive 98 percent -- except it doesn't apply to the nearly 2,000 students the university graduates each year; it applies to the 250 or so who are motivated enough to put their résumés in a special job-placement catalog. (Before the catalog, it's said, on at least one occasion the person responsible for the stats tried to count everybody who hadn't called back, figuring they must have jobs if they didn't have time to call.)

In the 1999 catalog, most of the graduates earned degrees in marketing, communications, business, education, human resources or human-service-agency management and are indeed working in related positions -- but many were already doing so while they were in school. Quite a few were adult students taking evening classes paid for by their employers. Random phone calls to these 98-percent-placed graduates turn up a communications major who's a claims rep for an insurance company, another who's teaching aerobics in a gym, a business major who's "between jobs right now," someone in "management" at Blockbuster, a woman with a master's in health care who just found a job taking orders for a phone company and another health-care major who is "most definitely not working in his field," his mother announces, hanging up the phone.

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