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.

An alum, recalling the two young men who were kicked out of Lindenwood for playing cards in a female friend's dorm room, says you'd never be kicked out for plagiarism. "There's a lot of cheating. When I took my religion class, there was a distraction outside, and four guys on the wrestling team gathered around and basically copied my test." A student in the evening division says a classmate tried to read her own paper aloud and "couldn't understand the words. She couldn't say 'vehemently,' and it was in the paper. This quarter she got an A-minus and a frowny face saying, 'Put this in your own words.'"

"The faculty have been working on plagiarism," sighs a former dean, "but it doesn't matter. You work on it, and then Spellmann can say, 'They are working on it.' Nothing happens. And if you're not working on it, he can say the faculty aren't concerned."

What Spellmann does say is that he is "not aware of any problems regarding plagiarism and it is the faculty's responsibility to deal with it, and when they have come up with incidents of plagiarism, the faculty have been supported 100 percent."

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.

Lindenwood's central irony: The professors who criticize Spellmann so harshly are his greatest asset, making the place famous for the excellence and dedication of its faculty. Christina Kurtz, a giggly and charming senior who came to Lindenwood when she was offered a free-ride academic scholarship, says she was shocked at how much knowledge and warm help her professors provided. "They were like my home away from home," she remarks. A mass-communications major, she kept her 4.0 grade-point average all four years: "In high school I'd taken a lot of honors courses, and some were for college credit, so when I got to Lindenwood, my general-ed courses were a breeze. But then the work picked up."

Malinda Hennessy, who graduated with a degree in communications from the evening division, also says her teachers were the high point, although the rigor of the material varied considerably. "We don't turn in much homework," she explains. "They did a lot of in-class stuff. But some were hard -- like Dr. Knoll's class: That was tough; we had quite a lot to do in that one."

John Knoll resigned from Lindenwood this fall. Kurtz' favorite prof, Charlie Leonard, left this summer, as did longtime psychology prof Mary Utley and more than a dozen others. Lindenwood's hiring freely, though: This fall's catalog lists 161 faculty, up from 139. What alarms the traditionalists is that only 67 percent of the 161 hold doctorates, a 5 percent drop from the previous year, and 46 profs hold degrees from Lindenwood, Tarkio or Missouri Valley. Before Spellmann, none of Lindenwood's 58 full-time faculty held degrees from the college (a point of pride in academia, where middle-tier schools pull their faculty from the next tier up) and only 11 of 71 adjuncts did. (Lindenwood no longer lists its adjunct faculty, which includes people hired to teach Lindenwood extension courses at rented facilities all over the state.)

Spellmann scorns the Ivy League eggheads who grade on a curve, but his faculty feel as if they're grading for the Macy's parade instead. "It's very difficult to know you are giving easier grades than they deserve," admits one, clutching a sweet note from a former student admitting she now regrets having her F changed, that she knows she deserved it. In the cash-cow evening division, where local corporations partner for on-site courses and pay the bulk of employees' tuition, a student claims to know classmates who "go in quarterly and say, 'My company's paying X and they will only reimburse 50 percent if I get a C; raise it to a B or I'll call Spellmann.'" Undergraduate faculty, meanwhile, say they'll get a call in November about a student they've barely seen, asking, "What can we do to get this person to pass your class?" The reply they've never dared voice: "He needs a time machine or a brain transplant."

Lindenwood gives up to 27 hours of credit for "life experience" (real-estate or stockbroker's license, military or computer training, self-developed training in particular fields), and the latest buzz is a degree in the ever-employable mortuary science. The core curriculum remains solidly academic, but the students aren't always ready for it. "Up until seven or eight years ago, I would cover 12 units in one semester," says a recently departed professor. "Last semester I managed to cover barely four. There are exceptions, brilliant students who make your life happy and beautiful. But we admit anything that walks. Some don't even buy textbooks -- they are very brazen; they go to the prof and say, 'This course sucks.' They have no idea what it means to be a student."

Other profs say they've switched to multiple-choice tests because their students can't write, cut down on the number of papers because there's no time to grade them. Writing samples offered by one include what one hopes are typos about the information "supper highway" and ideas coming "to the for front." A graduate thesis promises to "focus on the effect training and development in the workplace on employees job satisfaction," and another graduate student's paper reads, "Where I work. I had tow human resource manager within the last two since I been there.... The have effective employee all ask the employees for there input."

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