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.

Spellmann, on the other hand, is delighted with his faculty. "I brag on 'em," he says. "I told the president of Truman State, 'You don't have any confidence in your faculty. You only admit people that don't need teaching."

Lindenwood's faculty have been meaning to talk to him about that. Since Spellmann came to the university, prospective students have been allowed to waive even the required letter of recommendation and autobiographical essay, and in lieu of grades or test scores "an applicant may provide other documentation which demonstrates the student's ability to succeed." The graduate program doesn't require a GRE exam, and the catalog asks for a high-school diploma or GED in language that doesn't make even the GED mandatory. One professor remembers, early in the Spellmann years, running into a freshman near the end of the semester and hearing the girl call out gaily, "You'll be so proud of me! I just passed my GED!"

"Anybody who has the ability to pay, they will find a way to admit them," asserts another professor. "If you have Down syndrome, they will take you and brag about admitting at-risk students." Ouch. That's precisely the kind of academic sharp tongue that infuriates the president. "Higher education's arrogant," he remarks. "You see a lot of these institutions -- I'm not gonna call names -- where it's almost like, 'This would be a great place to work if we didn't have all these darn students around.'"

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.

Student-friendly Lindenwood recruits all over the place, offering "Education for Pork" last year to hard-hit farm families, dramatically reducing tuition in exchange for $2,000 worth of market hogs. Now the university's actively recruiting students from rural areas where the high school might not teach all the courses required by state schools. "We are going out and specifically recruiting those kids, because 75 percent of the high schools in our state are vulnerable to that," says Spellmann. "Maybe they are not as prepared. But we're not lowering standards; it's just that they start at a different place. There is all kinds of intelligence and talent -- how they sing, how they dance...."

A recent alum says a "friend who'd never played softball in his life got a softball scholarship and kept it all four years. Everybody's got a scholarship for something." Indeed they do, and Spellmann's proud that Lindenwood athletes don't lose their scholarships if they end up pursuing their studies instead of playing on a team. Others see it differently: "We bring 150 football players in every year, find people who can't get in anywhere else and give them this dream of playing college football. And if they drop out, we have the cash and they have the debt."

Actually, that's not fair. Spellmann learned a painful lesson from those early grant scandals, and he now bends over backward to make sure students finish. The Kaplan/Newsweek College Catalog 2001 identifies Lindenwood as one of the schools that "offer a high level of individual academic attention from faculty." Spellmann personally reviews each freshman's schedule, making sure he or she is busy. "Idle hands are the devil's workshop," he observes. "If their classes all start at 11 a.m., I'll throw in an 8 or 9 a.m., prevent problems right up front."

Just in case, though, he walks the campus at 3 a.m., keeping separate "night owl" and "hoot owl" lists. Night owls are just up late, so he makes sure they're in class the next morning, but hoot owls make noise, so he has "a different kind of talk" with them. His door's always open. He dresses up as Santa for the Christmas Walk, sometimes even fulfilling the role by helping people out of crises. No Lindenwood student ever has to leave because of financial difficulty, and those with academic problems are carefully guided.

"We have them sign a success contract," explains Evans, "specifying that the student will get up no later than 8 o'clock, swipe in with their card at the cafeteria, go to class and not go back to their room before 2 p.m. The Go Get 'Em program (which tracks down absentees, even giving wake-up calls) is part of that."

Evans recently wrote a paper on Lindenwood's transformation, noting that the '60s were marred by "a lopsided emphasis on academic development" and that and the university is now rediscovering its Judeo-Christian and American-frontier ideals. "In the '70s we lost our orientation toward developing students' character," says Evans, who's noticed a sharp decrease in such problems as plagiarism. "Now we have an explicit honor code in the student handbook, and faculty will confront the student and try to communicate why it's not adaptive to be dishonest. There is almost always a nontrivial consequence, and I rarely get a call of distress from the faculty members anymore."

Maybe not, but they do vent their distress elsewhere. When Spellmann arrived, the lengthy description of academic dishonesty and plagiarism in the catalog was reduced to two short paragraphs, and faculty say they've never been allowed to strengthen it. One former prof says he confronted one student with hard evidence of plagiarism and recommended flunking him -- only to have the student come up and hug him a few days later, explaining that the dean had offered a chance to redo the assignment. "Another time, this big huge football player handed in a research paper on quilting," chuckles the same professor. "I looked at him and said, 'Tyrone? Quilting?' Then I asked him questions, and he said, 'I dunno,' and I said, 'Tyrone, you didn't write this paper.' He said, 'You can't prove I didn't.' Then he said he was considering legal action. He got an A."

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