Editor's note: The following is an op-ed submission to Daily RFT from Steve Harris, a professor in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at Saint Louis University and the president of the SLU chapter of the American Association of University Professors. Check out our latest news coverage on the controversy at SLU here.
"The faculty are revolting!"
What's all the hubbub about, anyway? President Biondi of Saint Louis University has always been something of an autocrat, but he got stuff done: He made a coherent campus where there had been a mere scattering of academic buildings among apartment complexes and warehouses. He greatly increased the student body, changing SLU from a St. Louis-based local school to a university of international appeal. He brought SLU up to the level of a nationally recognized research institution. Isn't that worth putting up with top-down management style?
And so I thought for ten years, for fifteen, almost for twenty. But no longer.
See also: - Faculty Senate Slams Biondi: "There Is a Time for Him to Retire and It Is Now" - SLU Board of Trustees Chairman Resigns: "I'm Not Being Pushed Out" - Prof. Matthew Hall Criticizes Lawrence Biondi; Trustees Call Him Immature Liar
The campus is here; buildings are largely in place. What we need is effective leadership for the human dimension. And we need it now, like no time in the past.
Fr. Biondi's style is not just autocratic: it is classic management by intimidation. He berates senior faculty in person, accuses those opposing him of bias and lying, and has created a fear of retribution in individuals, departments, and entire schools. The case is laid out by a new report from the Faculty Senate Assessment Task Force. The toll has been gradually mounting for years; now it is at a crescendo, and we are facing ruinous consequences:
Our national rankings are dropping, both for the university as a whole (barely hanging on to the top 100 in U.S. News and World Report) and in important subdivisions such as medicine (SLU Hospital is a national embarrassment, ranked by Consumer Reports as among the ten worst teaching hospitals in the US for patient safety).
Multiple faculty resignations this year are due specifically to the Fr. Biondi's administration, and new student applications are severely depressed from last year's. Turn-over among deans and upper administration is alarmingly high, and embarrassing appointments by the president -- with no input from the faculty -- are now seen to be the norm, as illustrated by the forced resignations in recent months of the interim dean of the law school and the vice president for academic affairs; while highly respected academic officials, such as the provost and dean of the Department of Arts and Sciences, were summarily replaced without explanation.
The lack of faculty input in major directions of the university has led to chaotic budgeting, with canceled contracts for library subscriptions and denial of government grants due to lack of reliable university partnership. The faculty could have told the president about the negative effects of this versus that budgeting decision -- but we were never given the chance. We are supposed to help guide the university with our expertise in knowing how things affect our academic mission. But the president refuses to engage in long-range budgeting, so there is no guidance we can give.
Not only long-range budgeting: There is no effective oversight of most of the president's expenditures, which come out of the President's Opportunity Fund -- a fund which the university's chief financial officer has publicly refused to discuss and which is closed to view. The president has transferred large amounts of money from the profits of the clinical staff, the law school, the Center for Sustainability, and other units, without explanation; while this is within his purview, it destroys transparency and control.
And in the midst of this fiscal and academic chaos, the president has utterly lost the trust of the faculty and students from every segment of the university. We stagger from crisis to crisis: the law-school-dean crisis of last August, the vp of academic affairs crisis of September through December, the law-school-dean crisis of March -- and then, just last week the president spoke before the Student Government Senate and, having inappropriately excluded faculty from the meeting, gave a rambling set of answers to student questions in which he berated students for their no confidence vote in him (suggesting they did so only to curry favor with professors), once more reaffirmed his support of the ludicrous plans of the previous VPAA to micromanage all faculty, and made inexplicable and alarming references to closing the Department of Education.
We are in crisis mode: The president not only cannot lead the university any longer; he cannot even make a public appearance without causing open scandal. Is it any wonder he suddenly declined his scheduled appearance before the April 30 meeting of the Faculty Senate?
We are in desperate need of new leadership -- immediately. We need someone to begin planning now to lead us into our third century. We need someone who understands the crucial importance of long-range budgeting and the inclusion of faculty voices in that planning (not to be given a vote -- just a voice to be heard). We need someone who openly respects the faculty and the students, whom the alumni can be proud of, and who can command the respect of the community. We need someone who can embody the moral center of our Jesuit mission.
If not now, when?