Is a Wash. U. dean destroying alumni records and making unjust department cuts?

Mary Sansalone

Students, staff and faculty say Mary Sansalone, dean of the Washington University School of Engineering, has been angering them ever since she stepped onto campus in the fall of 2006. Now Wash. U. alumni have piled on. A four-page petition circulated among alumni via e-mail and Facebook calls on the board of trustees to address the alumni's deep concerns about Sansalone. If the trustees fail to do so, the petition threatens that alumni will withhold future donations to the university.

Despite the uproar, Chancellor Mark Wrighton and other top university officials say they stand firmly behind Sansalone, whose office forwarded all inquires about the petition to the school's communications office.

"While concerns remain, most people embrace the dean's vision and dedication to the future of the School," university communications director Steve Givens said in a written statement last week.

The alumni petition makes a number of serious charges against Sansalone, claiming, among other things, that she "unilaterally slashed curriculum" and merged several departments within the school without faculty approval. A technical writing instructor who had been formally reprimanded by Sansalone "must now earn a master's degree in a subject of the dean's choosing" in order to keep her job. Finally, "the dean and her staff filled six dumpsters with much of the history of the School of Engineering," including alumni records.

Eric Ratinoff, a 1993 Washington University graduate, urged his fellow alumni to circulate the petition as widely as possible. "I am taking an active role in this effort," he wrote, "because I have seen some of the evidence in question myself, and I have heard the charges against the dean repeated and verified to me first-hand by former students, athletes, advisees, and colleagues of mine who I trust. Unfortunately, they fear retribution if they speak up."

However, Ratinoff refused to comment last week on the petition or back up any of the charges with specific evidence.

Sansalone, 48, came to Wash. U. from Cornell, where she had served as vice provost. When she took over, the engineering department was in financial straits. She streamlined programs and eliminated jobs.

From the outset of Sansalone's tenure, students and faculty complained loudly that the cuts were too severe, that the firings were unjust, and that there was no longer enough funding for research. In fact, budget cuts became so prevalent that an April Fool's Day article in Washington University's student newspaper Student Life last year joked that Dean Sansalone fired herself.

"Beyond just not answering questions, she goes out of her way to keep the University community in the dark," groused a staff editorial in Student Life in October 2006.

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