ST. LOUIS • The man at the center of St. Louis University's ongoing rift between its faculty and administration sits at a table with a sheet of paper that explains everything.
On the page is a flow chart, filled with boxes, shaded lines and arrows. It illustrates the pathway new ideas are supposed to take before coming to life on the SLU campus.
Manoj Patankar, the school's embattled vice president of academic affairs runs a finger across the page and then stops at a white box in the middle. It's the place, he says, where the school's current troubles started.
It's where his proposals to change employee evaluations and tenure rules prompted a firestorm of criticism from faculty members. Now they're calling for his job and threatening to do the same for the school's president, the Rev. Lawrence Biondi, if he refuses to drop his support for Patankar.
Looking at that box, Patankar says the plan all along was to refine the proposals before sending them out to the entire faculty. But he says senate leaders never gave the process a chance to work. By jumping the gun and distributing the documents campuswide, he said they sparked an uproar that led to his unprecedented no-confidence vote -- even after the proposals were withdrawn.
“I really was surprised. I thought I had done everything I could,” Patankar said. “I don't know what the vote of no confidence is really about.”
That this private Jesuit university should find itself embroiled in such a public fight is beyond unusual.
The school's faculty rarely speak out against the administration. And the fact that faculty members are doing so now, they say, demonstrates how strongly they feel about what's been happening on campus in recent years.
Faculty leaders argue that there is much more at play here than a simple labor-management dispute over job security. They say they are concerned over their lack of involvement in important decisions and are unhappy with the school's continual decline in national rankings. Over the past decade, the school has seen its U.S. News & World Report ranking drop from 76 to 92, despite an oft-repeated goal of breaking into the top 50.
Their vote of no confidence, they say, is about finding a new direction for the school.
“This is not a mob that has reacted to something,” said Stephen Casmier, an associate professor in the school's English department. “It's very important that the trustees, president and vice president understand it is the voice of the faculty, rather than the voice of a few people.”
In some ways, today's conflict can be traced back to late 2009, when administrators -– led by then interim-provost Patankar –- decided to dismantle and reorganize the graduate school.
Faculty senate documents show that senators were upset over not being included in the process. They considered a no-confidence vote on Biondi and went so far as to vote down a motion demanding Patankar's removal.
At the heart of these disputes is what's known on college campuses as shared governance.
It's a system in which faculty members are supposed to work with administrators to guide their schools.
Of course, it's a foreign concept to those who work in corporate environments where bosses are all-powerful.
But everyone at SLU -– including Patankar -- agrees on the importance of shared governance. They just don't agree on whether it's actually happening.
Jay Hammond, an associate professor and chairman of the theology department, said the administration does generally solicit suggestions and input on most major issues. It just doesn't do much with that input, he said.
“Sure we are consulted,” Hammond said. “But we are not listened to.”
There were similar complaints this summer by Annette Clark, who abruptly resigned as dean of SLU's law school with complaints about being left out of key decisions.
Patankar's latest proposals were just another example of administrators pushing changes without making an honest effort to work with the faculty, said James Ginther, also a professor of theology.
Only this time, he said, people decided enough was enough: “It was the thing that woke everybody up.”
Patankar, for his part, insists that shared governance is alive and well.
He cites a recent accreditation report by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, which said the faculty senate has “an active and appropriate role in University governance.”
He also points to the administration's decision to withdraw his controversial proposals in response to faculty complaints: “What more evidence do you want of shared governance?”
A WAY OUT
What's ahead for the campus is a week of uncertainty as the faculty mulls its options following Biondi's rejection of the senate's no confidence vote in Patankar.
While it's unclear what the senate might do when it meets on Oct. 30, there are some indications that faculty members aren't ready to let the matter drop.
Already, the Arts and Sciences council has responded with a narrowly defined no confidence vote on Biondi's handling of the Patankar situation. And they appear poised to broaden their criticism with a vote on his overall leadership unless he relents.
“The intent was to give the president a way out,” said Steve Harris, a professor in the school's mathematics department and interim president of the school's recently revived chapter of the American Association of University Professors. “If he remains dug in, our path is pretty clear.”
The Arts and Science College also is planning a two-hour "teach-in" Wednesday afternoon -- as students return from Fall Break -- to talk about recent events and where things could be headed.
Patankar, meanwhile, is hoping tensions will ease between now and Oct. 30. He's been spending more time meeting with various schools and colleges, in hopes of demonstrating his willingness to work with the faculty. And despite the fact that they've demanded he be fired, he says wounds can be healed.
“I'm a teacher,” Patankar said. “I don't give up on my students. I don't give up on my colleagues.”
The school also is putting together a committee of faculty members and administrators tasked with studying shared governance.
Faculty senate president Mark Knuepfer is optimistic the group –- along with a few weeks of cooling-off time –- will help diffuse the situation.
“I think the administration is trying. They've removed proposals from the table. We've had very frank discussions,” Knuepfer said. “I want the chance for this to work.”
Also working in the administration's favor is that longstanding reluctance by the faculty to engage in high-profile fights. Even now, as emboldened faculty members speak out, most mention their fear that negative publicity could hurt the school and its students.
It's a concern echoed by students who have, thus far, remained largely on the sidelines.
“Any national attention, in regards to the removal of your president is never a good thing,” said Blake Exline, a junior and president of the Student Government Association.
There are signs, however, that students are starting to line up with with their professors. A page "SLU Students For No Confidence" has been started on Facebook, and has generated nearly 400 supporters.
Still, outside of some negative publicity, it's unclear what the impact would be of a vote of no confidence in Biondi.
Many on campus argue that the firmly entrenched president would be very unlikely to lose his job. Already the school's Board of Trustees has signaled its support both for Biondi and Patankar.
Still, David Ayers, an associate professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, said a vote by the faculty could put Biondi's leadership skills to the test.
“It would be hard to recover from,” said Ayers, who also is president of his state's AAUP chapter. “It would take a very talented leader to overcome that and rebuild a climate of trust.”
But then again, these sorts of votes have become increasingly common across the nation, as faculty and administrators grapple over the the direction of their schools.
A no confidence vote is not the end of the world, said Gretchen Bataille, senior vice president for leadership and lifelong learning at the American Council on Education and a former college president at the University of North Texas.
“I’ve seen votes on presidents, chancellors and provosts,” Bataille said. “At the end of the day, life goes on.”