A faculty committee blasts Chancellor Blanche Touhill's policies, charging that she's created a "chronic fiscal crisis" at UM-St. Louis that has led to tuition increases and academic cutbacks

Sep 22, 1999 at 4:00 am

The simmering dissatisfaction among University of Missouri-St. Louis faculty with Chancellor Blanche Touhill appears to be coming to a boil with the unanimous passage last week of a faculty report expressing "no confidence" in Touhill's leadership.

The 10-person Select Committee on Fiscal Practices, formed in May by the Faculty Council, issued a 12-page, single-spaced report stating that Touhill "has implemented imprudent fiscal policies" that have resulted in increased fees for students compared with those on other university campuses, reduced pay for faculty and staff and "weakened academic programs." According to the report, her budgetary decisions have resulted in a "chronic fiscal crisis" at the university.

One of the report's main allegations is that Touhill violated the university's procedures by diverting money from academic programs into discretionary accounts administered by her without the "meaningful involvement of the faculty." Dennis Judd, a political-science professor who chaired the committee, describes the chancellor's arbitrary action ignoring these procedures as the main reason UM-St. Louis is in financial distress and facing faculty dissent.

"The reason these rules were drawn up was to avoid financial stringency," says Judd, who is also presiding officer of the Faculty Council. "If you look at the language in the rules, that's the purpose. There's a well-developed philosophy if a chancellor doesn't engage in sound planning by involving faculty and other constituencies in her decisions that it's likely that bad judgments will be made. When you have an authoritarian, top-down mode of administration, you will end up with bad decisions.

"It's like our university is a throwback to a time when someone thought you could run it without participation," says Judd. "That's not the style for any successful organization anymore." The full Faculty Council is expected to discuss the committee's report and consider its own no-confidence vote at its next meeting, Thursday, Oct. 7.

UM-St. Louis spokesman Bob Samples describes the faculty committee's report as representing "less than half the picture and perhaps not a true understanding of all the figures related to the budget of the University of Missouri-St. Louis." Samples, who says Touhill is preparing a written response to the committee's charges, describes many members of the committee as longtime opponents of Touhill.

"The makeup of the so-called select committee, if you look at the names, their position on the chancellor is well known," says Samples. "I think the faculty as a whole will support the chancellor. As for the issue of a vote of no confidence, we'll have to wait and see."

Judd defends the faculty committee's analysis of what he concedes is a complex budget.

"We worked very hard to learn the university budget because it's very obscure and byzantine. It wasn't easy, and we didn't get very much help from the administration, who mostly would not answer our questions," says Judd. "I would daresay we have become informed, we do know the budget, we do know where to look on the accounts, but it took about a year."

The committee's report and follow-up letters are being sent to University of Missouri President Manuel T. Pacheco and to members of the university's Board of Curators. Timothy McBride, professor of economics and member of the faculty committee, doesn't deny that some members of the committee previously have been critical of Touhill.

"Frankly, we've been raising questions about this for a couple of years. We wouldn't have taken this dramatic of a step if we had had it resolved earlier. A lot of our complaints and comments have fallen on deaf ears. I would like to know what the system has to say about it," says McBride. "If a significant number of faculty are raising red flags to them, I would hope that they would take that as important information. Ultimately, all we can do is voice our displeasure."

The report blames Touhill's budget "reallocations" for imposing budget cuts "upon virtually all academic departments." The report states that the reallocations have ranged from $1.6 million-$3.2 million each year since 1991, with the money being cut from departments often put in the chancellor's discretionary funds.

The report says one of the effects of the reallocations is a decrease in the number of assistant professors at UM-St. Louis: Departments that must kick funds into the chancellor's reallocation for her discretionary account "abandon hopes of filling faculty positions vacated by as a result of retirement, death or dismissal." In 1994, UM-St. Louis had 103 assistant professors. By the end of 1998, that number had fallen to 59. The percentage share dropped from 32 percent to 19 percent of the faculty.

Samples sees that change as merely a result of the maturation of the faculty.

"If you explore the numbers, one of the reasons we have fewer assistant professors is we have more tenured associate and full professors. Many of the professors who were associates have been tenured and promoted. That explains in large part why that number is down," Samples says.

McBride doesn't buy that, adding that further evidence of cost-cutting is that more than half the current faculty is employed on a part-time basis.

"Over the 1993-1999 period, on the campus as a whole, the number of assistant professors dropped almost by half," says McBride. "When the college doesn't hire new people, what they usually don't hire is assistant professors. That has real implications for students, because then they're taught by part-timers and adjuncts, and not professors."

One of the targets of the committee report is Touhill's penchant for endowed chairs. In the last four years, the chancellor has announced 25 new endowed professorships. Unlike some other universities, private endowments and matching state funds at UM-St. Louis usually fall short of paying the costs of each new program. The report alleges that for each endowed position, the university "has been obligated to pay an average of approximately $90,000 to $120,000 in salary and benefits from its existing funds."

Judd blames Touhill's desire for a new publicity buzz as the reason new programs are started at the expense of established academic departments.

"The problems have been accumulating for years. What she has been doing is robbing money from programs that exist already in order to create new programs," says Judd. "None of them achieve excellence. They achieve bare adequacy because the attention span is short. As soon as they exist, the attention is on new programs.

"The problem is that they're brought online and created at such a pace that the institution couldn't sustain them without constantly eating its own innards," says Judd. "What has happened is that UMSL has cannibalized itself in order to grow. Any organization, any institution that does that is asking for trouble."

Samples credits the new programs for recruiting students. He says the new master of social work program already has 55 graduate students.

The other ongoing controversy on campus is the planned $50 million performing-arts center. Samples says the fundraising campaign for the performing-arts center is less than $2 million short of the $10 million goal that must be reached before construction begins. The rest of the $50 million, according to Samples, has been earmarked for the center by the state.

Judd and other faculty members have been critical of investing so much money in a facility when UM-St. Louis does not offer a theater major and when similar centers on other campuses end up becoming financial drains on their host universities.

"The problem is, under best-case scenarios, the campus will run it at a $250,000 deficit per year. If for any reason the commercial use doesn't pan out, the operating loss could go up exponentially," says Judd. "The start-up costs have to be borne by campus. That could be several hundred thousand dollars on a campus that has already has decimated its programs."

Taking into the consideration the rapid growth of endowed professorships, the expensive performing-arts center and the whittling-away at budgets by the chancellor to increase her discretionary funds, members who unanimously approved the committee report want change at the top at UM-St. Louis. That's what they want, but they don't expect Touhill to fold her tents and leave, or even to consider any real changes.

"That would be diametrically opposed to and different from the style of leadership we've had. We just need new leadership. I don't believe she's going to change her spots overnight," says Judd. "These things are difficult. Faculty just want to do their own work. They just want to teach. Nobody wants to spend their time on something negative, on attempting to challenge a chancellor's authority."

But six members of the committee that unanimously approved the critical report are also members of the 13-person University Senate Budget and Planning Committee that regularly meets with Touhill. Judd and others on the committee believe that UM-St. Louis is drifting in the wrong direction and that something must be done.

"We need leadership to get us through a perilous next five years," says Judd, "or UMSL really could have the kind of fiscal crisis that could irretrievably damage programs, and maybe some programs would have to cease to exist."