Father Knows Best

Lawrence Biondi radically remakes St. Louis University, leaving resentment in his wake

The sculpture studio consists of one sink -- which a faculty member installed himself -- and, for now, that sink is blocked.

Former provost Johnson returns to teaching at the School of Law this fall after four years working alongside Biondi. With Biondi out of town, she speaks for the administration.

Jay Bevenour
Students protested Biondi's leadership in 1999; now it's the faculty's turn.
Students protested Biondi's leadership in 1999; now it's the faculty's turn.

In her view, SLU's very progress has fueled faculty negativity and dissension. SLU, she says, has created a "culture of aspiration."

Johnson sees faculty frustration as a positive sign, proof that the university community has grown ambitious. When Johnson listens to a quote from SLU's own self-study -- "The perception remains ... that university governance structures are still worked by strong central control" -- she responds, "I think shared governance is always an area of tension in a university. I think it's a healthy tension.

"The reason I think it's healthy is that universities now -- and maybe it's always been the case, but certainly in the last twenty years -- are really called to preserve academic values. And this is a very traditionally oriented university in the sense of the Jesuit tradition and values of students, but we act in a competitive environment. You're called to do both things. I think that's where shared governance is at the pivot point, because to preserve academic values and respond to a competitive environment you need all the perspectives that people bring. But you're not going to run the place making every single decision by committee."

What she calls strong, vigorous leadership does not amount to "an atmosphere of fear," in Johnson's estimation. "That is something I can't relate to," she says.

Yet those interviewed for this article all use the same word to explain why they do not want their names attributed: "vindictiveness."

Johnson scrunches up her face as if trying to decipher a foreign phrase: "I worked closely with [Biondi] for four years. This position is second to the president. This is probably the closest position to him other than his board. I never saw it.

"I'm not saying he doesn't have strong reactions, but I've never seen him take an action against someone in a vengeful manner at all. Never saw it."

Three years ago, the student body held a minirevolution against Biondi after he increased parking fees. In the spring of 1999, the Student Governing Association gave the president a vote of no-confidence.

The Faculty Senate resisted such a motion because, as one former senator recalls, "We take a vote of no-confidence very seriously, and, you know, this was just parking."

But the upheaval moved Biondi to sign a peace accord with the Faculty Senate. He agreed to move toward greater shared governance of the university. Faculty, students and staff would be placed on committees where they hadn't been welcome before. The administration would be open rather than closed, providing information rather than keeping plans to itself.

"Shared Governance at St. Louis University: Reality or Myth?" is Biondi's report card, delivered to him by the Faculty Senate in April.

According to this report, Biondi pulled an end run. He allowed faculty, students and staff onto committees, then took away their power.

For example, such decisions as the moving of the School of Public Health to the Salus Center last year, the construction of the new art museum, property acquisitions -- these sorts of issues used to be dealt with by the President's Coordinating Council.

But after representatives from the faculty, student body and staff joined that committee, Biondi moved the ultimate decision-making power to his executive staff.

The PCC, which formerly met every other week, began to meet once a month. Meanwhile, Biondi's staff began meeting every other week.

"They simply began to deal with the meaty issues, the juicy issues, those which would be controversial," says a former PCC member. "The [PCC] became more information-sharing than decision-making. The PCC in its earlier form actually used to vote on things on a consistent basis. In its new iteration, that rarely happens."

Sandra Johnson, who sat in on both PCC meetings and the president's closed sessions, disputes the Faculty Senate's charges. "I would have to say there was a very faithful adherence to that agreement on the part of the senior staff and the president," she says. "Whatever came up at senior staff [meetings], what was always discussed was 'Is this a PCC issue or is this a management issue?' Not every decision that's made goes through the PCC, or should. There are some things you have to do to keep the trains running. There's always going to be tension, and people are going to have different views of that. But that PCC really did operate. Things went to it in a constant fashion."

She admits that the president's staff determined who should decide what: "Sometimes the judgment was the wrong judgment. But it wasn't from lack of trying to be faithful to that agreement."

A faculty senator says Johnson is missing the point: "Suddenly, after the faculty, student and staff members were put on the PCC, the senior staff meetings increased in frequency and the PCC meetings decreased in frequency. A lot of the content of the PCC meetings turned into reports.

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