For the past several months, the embers of an ugly confrontation involving the faculty, administration, and Board of Trustees have been smoldering at St. Louis University (SLU).
The first act in this drama unfolded when an administrator proposed that all tenured professors would undergo a sexennial review. For the administrator, the proposal’s merit was that tenured professors would continue demonstrating satisfactory achievement in the conduct of their teaching, research, and service responsibilities. (Read: “Tenured professors can be dismissed for unsatisfactory work.”) For SLU’s tenured faculty, the proposal’s drawback was its administrative merit. (Read: “Short of misconduct, there’s no way in Hell the administration will dismiss tenured faculty.”)
The first act in the drama came to a close in October when members of SLU’s Faculty Council of the College of Arts and Sciences cast a 35-2 vote of no confidence against SLU’s President, the Reverend Lawrence Biondi, SJ, for not firing the administrator who floated the proposal. The vote upped the ante, getting the SLU Board of Trustees involved.
The second act has been unfolding behind the scenes since October, with the SLU Board of Trustees’ President, Thomas H. Brouster, attempting to tamp down the embers. According to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, a truce between the administration and faculty was imminent.
But, a letter Brouster wrote was leaked to the press:
Who disseminated the letter has not been disclosed, but it was posted to a Facebook page entitled “SLU Students for No Confidence.” The post represents a third call for Fr. Biondi’s removal, lending support to two “no confidence” votes earlier this fall by the Arts and Sciences Faculty Senate and the Student Government Association.
Since St. Louis University is a Catholic university sponsored by the Society of Jesus, a couple of items that merit consideration:
- The notion of tenure at a Catholic university. Tenure was invented to protect professorial academic freedom, that is, “the ability to pursue the truth wherever the facts may lead.” However, the term now connotes “a guaranteed job for life, short of professional misconduct.” The former protects professors from interference in the conduct of their profession by outsiders. The latter immunizes professors from interference by outsiders no matter what professors may do, short of professional misconduct. The SLU administrator understands this “difference with a distinction,” as does the SLU faculty, and ostensibly wants to do something to redress the balance so that tenured professors who fail to fulfill their professional obligations can be liable for dismissal.
- The laicization of Boards at the nation’s Catholic universities and colleges. Since the 1960s, Boards have been dominated by the laity. In many cases, these women and men have proven themselves to be successful professionals and as Board members, have fulfilled their primary responsibilities (what’s called the “3 G’s,” namely, “to give, to get, or to get off”). At the same time, the worldview of many of these Board members has been shaped by their professional experience and they tend to evaluate and resolve problems by imposing what they’ve learned from that experience upon the institution.
At SLU, these two items coalesced as the Trustees’ President hunkered down by hiring a St. Louis-based public relations firm, Fleishman-Hillard , to direct a Board Task Force in “crisis management.”
All of this raises three questions:
- Are differences between factions within these institutions—where the unfettered search for truth is supposed to be paramount—best resolved by “calling for the head” of an administrator who proposes a perfectly reasonable policy as well as the head of that administrator’s boss? Some much for unfettered discourse! “Give us Barabbas,” the frenzied crowd shrieked.
- Should the award of tenure immunize professors from interference by outsiders—in this case, administrators—no matter what professors may do, short of professional misconduct? In the professional world, “a fair day’s pay” is earned by “a fair day’s work.” Continuing to pay underperforming, substandard employees is no way to “run a business.” For a professional academic to deny this fact is conduct unbecoming a professional academic. Worse yet is the professional academic who aids, abets, and protects colleagues who, in their classrooms, state as fact what are personal opinions and tolerate no discussion concerning the merits of contrary opinions.
- While hiring p.r. experts to manage crises represents “best practice” in the corporate and political world, should it be normative when differences between various entities—like Boards, administrators, faculty, and students—arise at the nation’s Catholic universities and colleges? Hiring expensive experts in public relations to deal with fissures within a collegiate community isn’t so much about educating its members as it is of “tamping down and putting out fires.” Perhaps that’s appropriate for private sector “management vs. labor” negotiations, but for a Catholic institution of higher education?
Perhaps what’s unfolding at SLU is part of a larger narrative in U.S. Catholic higher education: Its professionalization and secularization where the values of this world increasingly inform and shape institutional decision making, policies, and procedures.
So much for Ex corde ecclesiae.
To read The Motley Monk’s original post about this drama, click on the following link:
To access the Board of Trustees’ President’s letter online, click on the following link:
To read the St. Louis Post-Dispatch article, click on the following link…