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Why we voted no confidence

The vote of no confidence by the Faculty Senate of Saint Louis University against the vice president for academic affairs, Dr. Manoj Patankar, last month has caught the attention of many. Fr. Biondi responded last week with a letter that rebutted some of the specifics related to the vote, but he failed to react to the larger issues that have preoccupied the faculty. SLU’s administration, in fact, seem to think this vote was simply the result of “hysterical” and “petulant” faculty. These words have been used to suggest that we acted only out of self-interest.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Rather, the faculty has acted in the interests of our students and alumni, and of those who care deeply about the University’s mission of scholarship, education, service and the pursuit of academic excellence.

We voted against Patankar because we are driven by the shared conviction that SLU is in need of effective leadership. Without such leadership, SLU is in trouble. One sobering example highlights SLU’s troubling trajectory. In the past decade, SLU has slipped 15 places in the U.S. News & World Report “Best Colleges” rankings. The drop from 77th to 92nd represents one of the worst declines of any school in the top 100.

The modern university must change or else spiral into decline. The bold goal of becoming a top-50 university is exactly what SLU needs to spur itself toward greater success. But simply stating an intention is not enough. Actions speak much louder than words.

For the last three years at SLU, specific actions have indeed spoken louder than words. These actions have been chaotic, contradictory and confused. Initiatives such as Patankar’s initial Strategic Plan for the University in 2010 were developed without consulting the faculty and, when criticism mounted, have been quietly abandoned. SLU’s mission as a Jesuit, Catholic university has ultimately been ignored in strategic planning.

Spending on resources vital to our students and faculty, such as the acquisitions budget for the library, has been cut. Such decisions ignore the fact that top-50 universities spend far, far more than we do on those same resources. The ways in which departments function, research is supported or colleges or schools are managed has been subject to arbitrary and whimsical redirection, as was the case with Patankar’s recent proposal to move the library into a new School of Informatics in order to generate revenue. This is not planning. This is not bold leadership. It is chaos. This is what a spiral of decline feels like.

Effective leadership creates a sense of ownership. Ownership means that all of us – administration, faculty, students and alumni–enthusiastically share the goals and strategic plans of our university because it belongs to all of us. The University does not belong to any one interest group, let alone any one individual. Ownership is not created by spurious, top-down “consultation,” but rather by shared planning where all stakeholders contribute their effort and energy.

Time and time again Patankar has ignored the voices of those stakeholders. The vice president has claimed, for example, that he did “consult” with the faculty on his recent evaluation proposals. There were certainly committees and public meetings, but there is no evidence that anything central to the proposals came from the faculty or that their voices were even heard. His actions, in other words, spoke far louder than his words. His action was to ignore what he did not want to hear.

Effective leaders build ownership with trust. This is risky, because it means learning to rely on others. You rely on deans, directors and chairs to do their jobs. You trust the faculty (in the same way that faculty must trust students) and you recognize that they are the engine of success. You erode trust when you micro-manage colleges and departments, make arbitrary decisions or are fearful of transparency. You erode trust when you cannot distinguish between what is truly innovative and what is merely faddish jargon. Without this risky, collaborative trust, a university will not improve. It will decline.

The pervasive lack of trust undermines any attempt at effective leadership. Trust is what is lacking at SLU. There has been no indication that the vice president has recognized this problem. Our decision to vote for no confidence was, and still is, a clear demand for effective leadership. We voted no confidence to protect our university.

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