Provost Who Sought Controversial Tenure-Review Policy at Saint Louis U. Will Step Down

December 17, 2012

The provost at Saint Louis University, who was the face of a controversial posttenure-review proposal that led to faculty and student votes of no confidence in his leadership, has resigned.

Manoj Patankar will return to the faculty in the university's Parks College of Engineering, Aviation, and Technology. His resignation, which follows an unprecedented period of discord between professors and the administration at the Jesuit institution, is effective at the end of the current semester.

The chairman of the Board of Trustees announced Mr. Patankar's resignation in a letter released after the board's quarterly meeting, held over the weekend. Ellen M. Harshman, dean of the business school, will serve as interim provost.

Although the university's president, the Rev. Lawrence Biondi, has been under fire as well—in part, for his strong backing of Mr. Patankar—he still has the support of the board, even in the face of no-confidence votes against him.

In the days before the board met, a group of faculty members gave trustees a 16-page report detailing why they believed Father Biondi's 25-year run as president should end. The reasons cited in the report included "unprofessional conduct" by Father Biondi, "failure to adequately support academics," and "mishandling of university finances."

Yet faculty members, who applauded Mr. Patankar's decision to resign, aren't surprised that board members weren't swayed.

"We did not expect the president to be removed," said Mark M. Knuepfer, president of the Faculty Senate and a professor of pharmacology and physiology. "We respect what he has done in the past. We're not sure he's the person for the future."

Still, the board has signaled that the university will be moving forward with Father Biondi and its interim provost working together. "Our expectation is that Father Biondi and Dr. Harshman will make substantial progress in improving collaboration and communication with all constituencies," the chairman, Thomas H. Brouster Sr., wrote in the letter, which was e-mailed to faculty, staff, and students.

'We Have Heard You'

The letter detailed six ways in which the board, administrators, and faculty members can begin to work together to rebuild shared governance at Saint Louis. Among them: The president of the Faculty Senate will meet annually with the board to relay the faculty's concerns, representatives from the board and the administration will meet annually with the Faculty Senate to report on the state of the university, and the Faculty Senate and the board will explore ways to develop a process that leads to effective shared governance at the institution.

"Please know that we have listened and we have heard you," the letter said.

Mr. Knuepfer said he had been "on a crusade" throughout his term as Faculty Senate president to improve shared governance. He sees the board's most recent stance on the issue as a plus. "Anything that moves toward improved shared governance, I'm 100 percent for it," he said.

However, some faculty members and students say that what's been laid out by the board isn't enough.

"This is just an initial step toward addressing the issues we have," said Kenneth L. Parker, an associate professor of historical theology. "I do think that the board has much more work ahead of it."

Mr. Brouster gave a nod to that sentiment, writing that the board had been in discussions with Father Biondi about the issues the faculty and students have raised and that it "will continue to do so." However, Mr. Parker and others don't believe that productive talks about the institution's future can take place with Father Biondi at the helm.

"The president has been notoriously difficult to work with, and that's a problem we've been having for decades," said Steve Harris, a professor of mathematics and computer science who recently became president of the university's newly revived American Association of University Professors chapter. "He's 74, and retirement is probably not a bad idea in the near future."

The Faculty Senate is scheduled to meet on Tuesday to discuss its next steps, said Mr. Knuepfer, who has been invited to make a presentation to the full Board of Trustees in February.

Mr. Knuepfer said he is hopeful that the task of rebuilding shared governance will soon get under way.

"Friends from around the country have been wondering what is happening with the university," Mr. Knuepfer said. "I don't want future Faculty Senates and Faculty Senate presidents to have to go through the same type of ordeal that we've gone through recently. It's good to be able to say that we've reached some resolution, and more important, in my view, I think we're going to make strides to improve shared governance."