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A call for reason amid tension

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The current issues at Saint Louis University have reached a fever pitch.  The phrase “no-confidence” seems to have replaced “Go Billikens!” as the school cheer.  The faculty takes a vote, throws out statistics and the administration counters with their own figures.  It is a daily saga played out for all to see on a local and national scale, and a stain on the reputation of Saint Louis University.

I intended to write this letter backing Fr. Lawrence Biondi, and what I believed to be the best course of action for this University going forward.  But the more I thought about the root causes of this conflict, the less I wished to entrench myself in one side, which will accomplish little for the University.  Rather, I wish to address all parties with the hopes that these issues are resolved in a manner befitting of the institution that everyone involved hopes to see prosper.

To the faculty:  I have the utmost respect for you and your work at this school.  That being said, the situation at hand is the direct result of the public nature of your dispute with the administration. From my understanding, and the information provided by the faculty themselves, you felt the standards by which you would be judged to be unfair; and I fully agree.  The central idea of tenure review, however, is not a means with which to force you to live in constant fear of your job any more than passing out four challenging tests a semester is reason for students to fear failing.  We should all be held to an exacting standard.  Ultimately, yes, the proposal was terribly flawed, but I thought the faculty I admire would have had a more eloquent and level-headed response.  Where were the counter proposals? Where was a faculty that could rise to a challenge, with a firm stance on its own behalf, yet an understanding that it should be held to a high regard?

So now we are at an impasse.  You want nothing short of the removal of our president. You have the support of an overwhelming majority of students, and I pray that you do not take advantage of that trust.  You are here only because we are here, and you have my respect as long as the University and the students come first. But I am wary if you continue down the path I believe you to be headed.

To Fr. Biondi: You have done great things for this school; no one is denying that.  You have proven that you can do what you think is right for the University even if it is unpopular. You have proven that you are unyieldingly stubborn.  Here is your opportunity.  Prove yourself to be a versatile leader, one who will not ignore controversy but confront it head on; to be willing to bend for the good of the school. Show a little bit of transparency.  I do believe that you and the administration are the only people who should be making decisions with regards to the financial future of this institution, but please continue to give us the numbers.  There have been improvements, but there have also been failures.  Work with the faculty even if they have no confidence. Be the leader we need. Step up.

To SGA: Your role in this controversy has done little but exacerbate the situation.  The letter sent to the Board of Trustees is well outside of what I elected you to do as my student government.  You do not yet have financial degrees, nor any experience in the realm of University administration.  Your conflicting grievances about tuition costs, budget cuts, teacher’s salaries, rankings and the comparison of SLU to schools like Georgetown and Boston College demonstrate this lack of expertise.  There is only so much money to go around without directly increasing costs. And to compare our school with others who have more expensive tuition and endowments twice the size of SLU’s is irresponsible.  Please stick to your role as a representative of the student body.

And to the students I say: Keep yourself informed.  Do not succumb to party politics and back-biting, but, rather, use the brains and drive that got you to this University to propose legitimate solutions to the very real issues at hand.  Finally, fellow Billikens, hope like hell the faculty and administration in which you have put your utmost trust can set aside their grudges and move this University forward.

3 Comments

  1. jmeiner6@gmail.com says:

    Hello Nicholas,

    As a co-sponsor of the bill, it is more than a little insulting that you say we do not know about how the University works. I just graduated from this fine institution in May with a degree in Economics, but that’s really beside the point. As recently as 2005, SLU had a larger endowment than Georgetown (http://bit.ly/SPzwhp). The average endowment growth of our peer and aspirational (p&a) schools (as defined by the University between 2005-2011) was 45%. Our growth was only 17%; only Drexel’s was lower. Additionally, within that document, you can see the net price for attending SLU (after financial aid) was significantly higher than our p&a schools (with the exception of Drexel and Fordham). Only 64% of financial need is met at SLU, lower than every other p&a school (with the exception of Drexel and Fordham). We also had lower faculty salaries than every other p&a school except Dayton. Additionally, the University just cut library expenditures despite SLU’s low rate of spending in libraries compared to similar universities.

    We aren’t asking for lower tuition and higher faculty pay. What we’re asking for is to focus on what makes a good university. You can’t do that by raising tuition to higher than our p&a schools, cutting the library budget significantly, and keeping faculty at a salary freeze.

    Our job is to act in the best interests of students, to speak up if we think there is a problem that even we can see despite having no “experience in the realm of University administration.” I’m fairly certain our job is not to sit down and shut up.

    Please be informed. Do not assume that because some people are uninformed that none of us are. If no SGA senator could positively state that he/she had confidence in Fr. Biondi, it is no longer a small group of students.

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  2. njesse55@gmail.com says:

    Commentor,

    In response to your concerns, in the article I was not attacking your or anyone on the SGA’s intelligence. Furthermore, it was not a call to “sit down and shut up” but to remember your role as a student government. From speaking with members of the SGA both past and present, I came to understand that in this decision, as with many others, the SGA does not vote necessarily on the basis of its constituency, but rather on their own personal intuitions and views. While it is great to see our student leaders acting on behalf of our faculty, I do not believe that the views of the student body were represented.
    The disparity between an unanimous (or almost unanimous) vote by the student government, and from my experience, a student body that is divided in their decision, is too large to ignore. As a governing body your responsibility is to the students, not to the legacy of the institution, or what you see to be a “good university”. Yes, the good of the university is ultimately what is good for the students, but I felt as if the SGA did not take into account the divisive nature of their actions in sending a letter to the Board of Trustees.
    Furthermore, I understood the facts and figures and I apologize for not being able to fully elaborate on those points but the article was limited in its length. The main point of using those figures was to express concern that the figures being presented to students by the SGA did not fully encompass the issue. If you have access to this information, so does the Board of Trustees… I was concerned with the decision to outline these issues in a public letter to the Board. Your job is to inform the student body and speak on their behalf, but the manner in which this occurred caused more harm than good in my opinion.
    Finally, the financial situation of the University is more complicated than the grievances make it seem. Faculty salaries make up around 70% of a University’s operating costs. A moderate pay raise across the board of even 3% would result in millions of dollars of incurred cost to the University. (The relationship between this problem and a proposed review which gave performance based raises yet did not jeopardize the tenure system would be interesting to consider). Cut funding to the libraries and faculty pay are a major concern for this University and a personal one, but the message was that it is not the whole story. I feel that there is more information than the SGA gave to the student body, or even received from the administration.
    If I am misinformed, as you state, then I would say that it is a failing on the part of the SGA to act in their capacity as a liaison between myself and the administration. I too would like to know the best way forward for this University, and would like to see honest and productive dialogue between the administration and the faculty. As another article stated, discourse needs to be the mode by which the University advances and I felt as if this was bypassed in the Senate Chambers. If there is to be open communication between the student body and the administration, it needs to occur between the student body and their appointed leaders.
    The above article calls for the SGA to take the time to converse with their constituents, have open dialogue, and present all of the facts of the case in a balanced manner. Do not attack the students who disagree with you as “uninformed” but rather take the time to have a discussion with them. The Student Government cannot lead without serving its student body, and I urge you to not put yourself above that position. You are in a service role first, the leadership stems from that. The problem was not your intelligence or ability, but the pervasive mentality that the Student Government is somehow above the average student.
    Open discourse is the only thing that will move this University forward and the actions of the SGA seem to undermine that while criticizing the upper administration for the same thing. The only thing that was meant by the criticism in the article was: keep your full constituency in mind.

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  3. jmeiner6@gmail.com says:

    The senators of SGA (I am not currently an SGA senator, FYI) are charged to act in the best interest of their constituency. It is impossible for them to vote so that each of their constituents is happy. On a divisive issue like this, they decided the best vote for their constituency and SLU as a whole was to vote no confidence. SGA also did a massive amount of research. As much as possible was disseminated. Some of the information was not because some senators thought if we did not provide some balance we would look like we were strongly biased. A strong effort was made to be extremely careful, even after the vote.

    If the student body were polled with 70% in favor of no confidence and 30% in favor of no vote, many senators would interpret that as saying they should vote for no confidence. This hypothetical campus would look very divided no doubt, but more people by a significant margin wished to vote no confidence. At SLU more people have decided to voice their support of no confidence publicly.

    The views of the student body came in unsolicited. The large majority of student feedback was to urge SGA to vote no confidence. When SGA solicited opinion, a similar majority of feedback was to vote confidence. There may be a “silent majority” but when SGA reaches out, they found that this was not really the case.

    However, this is not enough. Student opinion is a large part of the puzzle, but in-depth research that the average student does not have time for is also very important. The fact that the vote was unanimous was surprising for all of us. There was a vigorous debate about whether or not we should vote no confidence. However, an interesting thing was that almost no senators said they had confidence in Fr. Biondi. Most senators who were initially against the vote felt that way because they were a) scared of the repercussions b) they thought it wasn’t the right time or c) they thought we should just ask Father to resign. After a five-hour session, the nearly unanimous vote came from a secret ballot. Given an extensive debate, the senators were able to vote overwhelmingly for no confidence.

    It is hard to show students this material from the debate. I would recommend going to https://www.facebook.com/NoConfidenceSLU/info. They obviously have a bias, but they try to pull together all the research on links so that the average student can be more informed.

    SGA is putting together an event to discuss these issues with their constituents, but it will probably be pushed back to next semester due to time constraints. SGA has been going to student groups and some classes to discuss this, but many student groups have denied SGA. It is hard to reach every student. Maybe you should ask SGA to come to one of your student groups.

    To vote no confidence is almost by definition to send a public letter to the Board of Trustees. Even if it were private, Board members have privately told faculty senate and SGA that the media is the best way to reach the board.

    Additionally, were you aware that trustees are rumored to not be allowed to talk to students, faculty, and staff? This barrier is why students and faculty went to the media. There are many issues with this de facto barrier. The information we have may not be available to all trustees. For example, Dr. Chaifetz was informed of Dean Clark’s resignation more than a month after the events transpired. The trustees may not be fully informed. Many faculty and student senators believe that they are told one version of events that is never contradicted because there is no student or faculty trustees.

    The issues of money that you and I discuss are interesting in that we both say that we don’t really know what the situation is. I submit that this in itself is a problem. Most top 50 schools are fairly transparent about their budget and their endowment. SLU is not.

    Open discourse and discussion is really what SGA desires. However, the entire student body does not agree on this issue. The evidence SGA has was that most students (of those who reached out) wanted a vote of no confidence. We have yet to see contradictory show of support for Father. Most of the people who have disagreed said they disagree and did not want to engage further. No non-senator at the open SGA meeting spoke out against the vote.

    Lastly, I wasn’t saying that all students are uninformed, but was merely repeating your refrain “Keep yourself informed. Do not succumb to party politics and back-biting, but, rather, use the brains and drive that got you to this University to propose legitimate solutions to the very real issues at hand.”

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