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TMCNet:  Faculty anger reignites at St. Louis University over letter

[December 03, 2012]

Faculty anger reignites at St. Louis University over letter

Dec 03, 2012 (St. Louis Post-Dispatch - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- A letter written by the head of the St. Louis University Board of Trustees asking fellow board members to remain mum on the advice of a public relations firm was apparently leaked to students Saturday, causing yet another uproar among faculty.

The newest imbroglio came just days after University leaders and the school's Faculty Senate appeared to have called a truce. On Friday the parties released a join statement vowing to increase communication amid a time of discord on campus. The statement said the groups intended to engage in "more frequent and effective communications throughout the University Community." But the cease-fire ended abruptly with the disclosure Saturday night of the letter, penned by Trustee President Thomas H. Brouster.

Director of Communications Clayton Berry, who is designated to speak for the Board of Trustees, declined to comment on the letter.

The letter was quickly disseminated over the weekend among students and faculty and posted on an online Facebook page entitled SLU Students for No Confidence. In October, the Faculty Senate and the Student Government Association took "no confidence" votes against University President Lawrence Biondi, criticizing his leadership and essentially calling for his removal.

The Brouster letter, dated Nov. 30, informed the 50-plus members of the board that a Trustee Task Force had been working with the St. Louis-based public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard since early November to handle crisis management regarding the strife between faculty and administration. Brouster said the task force had been acting on the advice of the firm to not talk directly with faculty, media or other constituents regarding the situation, and that it was relying on that firm to draft press releases and relay information.

The letter urges his fellow trustees to be unified in their support of Biondi, saying "any response to the Board to the media should be done in an organized manner with a shared message of support for Father Biondi's leadership." It further reiterated that trustees should remain silent on the issue and advised against speaking to the media off the record.

The letter caused immediate outrage among faculty and students, many of whom argue Biondi and other leaders have failed to effectively communicate with them and have ignored attempts at joint governance with faculty.

On the Facebook site, faculty and students argued any statement of cooperation with the administration should be rescinded given Brouster's letter. Many said the letter, urging the board to hold their tongues and rely on a public relations firm, conflicts with the joint statement issued Friday pledging increased communication and an open process to work out grievances.

It also prompted a faculty-based news release Sunday criticizing trustees.

"I am profoundly disappointed" said Kathryn Kuhn, professor of sociology and criminal justice, as quoted in the release. "We acted in good faith. Now we find out that the people we were negotiating with had already made up their minds to support Biondi." Since August, the faculty has openly argued the school has lost its way under Biondi and has failed to properly collaborate with faculty on major initiatives, including a strategic plan and a failed administrative proposal to change the terms of tenure at the school.

The Faculty Senate and other university groups first had called on Biondi to fire Manoj Patankar, academic vice president, after he proposed in a proposed policy that was later rescinded that tenured faculty would have to reapply for tenure every three years. When Biondi took no action, the groups took votes of no confidence against the president. The Board of Trustees has not yet met to discuss the votes of no confidence as a whole .

Brouster's letter further criticized faculty leaders negotiating with the task force -- saying some violated previous agreements to not communicate to the media.

"The Faculty Senate leadership, however, failed to honor its commitment; subsequently speaking to the media on multiple occasions," the letter reads.

___ (c)2012 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Visit the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at www.stltoday.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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