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.

DESE liked their new standards because they measured student performance, but Spellmann called them subjective and bureaucratic, sniffing the influence of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, an accrediting body from which Lindenwood had withdrawn the previous year. Right after their accreditors found "serious weaknesses" in Lindenwood's program.

Lindenwood claims its teacher education is the premier program in the state, and with 5,000 students enrolled this year, it may also be the largest. But last August, Spellmann's old foes at DESE reported that Lindenwood's teacher-ed students scored more than three points lower on their ACT than their fellow freshmen, the biggest gap in the state. "We can't relate to where they came up with those numbers, and I'm not going to worry about going back and checking," Spellmann told the Post. "GPA is a much better indicator. Love of teaching is a much better indicator. Some people don't test well.... We've got to get beyond that comparative data."

May 2000, Lindenwood's largest commencement ever. The Pipe and Drums of Moolah Ainad start their first heavy blow and the faculty and graduates line up, the women's floral prints drooping beneath too-short black robes. Proud fathers climb onto picnic tables to snap pictures; busty moms jiggle in their light summer dresses, running from the procession to get a tree-shaded seat.

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.

Spellmann opens, his deep, twangy voice setting the tone. "This past year has been a spectacular one for Lindenwood University," he says, then quickly makes way for the commencement speaker and honorary-doctorate recipient, Gene S. Kahn, CEO of the May Department Stores Co. Kahn urges graduates to "embrace the competitive nature of our environment" and "climb the ladder, rung by rung." Everybody applauds.

And there the faculty sit, black-robed in the hot sun, convinced the president planned it that way because he likes to see them sweat. They're tired of hearing students referred to as "customers" or "consumers"; they're tired of being told they're "service providers" with "billable hours" and their department chairs are "program managers" and their university is a "market-driven, managed operation." "They evaluate you by how many 'seats' (students) are in your classes," sighs a professor, and another recalls how Spellmann "once referred to our North Central accreditation as our 'franchise.'"

The cultures are clashing.

Spellmann envisions Lindenwood as the prototype of a brand-new category: the teaching university. For him, that means putting students first at all times and running their education like an efficient business so they can get on with their lives. He wants to attract faculty who are "team players," "entrepreneurial people that feel kept down by tenure," and he expects them to submit proposals to him, "like to a banker. They gotta learn how to put them into good form, or the banker will say, 'Get out of here.' And if they come up with something that's self-serving, like wanting a bigger office or to cut their class size down and have a bunch of personal items on their desk that have nothing to do with teaching the students and do some travel for their own gratification -- they might see some anger."

The faculty, on the other hand, still dream of Lindenwood as a traditional liberal-arts university with high academic standards. They don't think research takes away from their teaching, and they yearn for enough time to keep up with their field so that they're not just recycling the same old class notes every semester. Nostalgic for the grand old days when the life of the mind meant more than bricks, mortar, greenbacks and pigskin, they hate to see Lindenwood leading a pack that's headed in the opposite direction.

The tension takes its toll.

In 1994, the names of 103 professors and administrators were engraved into individual bricks, laid in a sedate walkway through the center of campus. Six years later, 52 of those honorees are gone. You have to play hopscotch to land on the survivors. "He always wants new blood, mainly because he can control them," notes a recently departed professor. "Pruning, he calls it. He says it's healthy for the Lindenwood tree."

He prunes, and he re-pots: Since his arrival, there have been six deans of science and five deans of education, and his daughter has held five different administrative positions. People joke about the ex-deans club and the "flexibility" required of faculty who are called to teach outside their own department or add a course on a moment's notice.

Amid the flux, one steady presence is that of Jim Evans, described by one wag as Tariq Aziz to Spellmann's Saddam Hussein. Formerly dean of science and now dean of faculty, Evans had tenure B.S. and even signed that early letter to the board protesting Spellmann's policies.

He's the only letter-signer still employed at Lindenwood.

Asked whether his faculty have adjusted to the absence of tenure, Evans says, "Oh yeah, because it really hasn't affected job security or academic freedom." On the latter point, faculty would agree; Spellmann rarely interferes with the actual content of their teaching, and that's one of the job's great blessings. "At least 90 percent of our faculty members don't have any problem with being managed," Evans continues, "and that's conservative." It's also optimistic. Asked how many faculty like the current setup and would give the president a vote of confidence, a former dean hazards, "One to 2 percent -- if it's a secret ballot." Others guess 2 or 5 percent; a self-confessed Spellmann favorite ventures 20 percent.

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