UT board chairman vows to find and fire liars; Faculty decry remarks as assault on freedom

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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Stung by a spate of rumors swirling around the University of Toledo’s administration, the chairman of UT’s board of trustees said yesterday he will hunt down and fire any employees he thinks are spreading inaccurate information about the university.

“They will be investigated,” Chairman Ronald Langenderfer said. “If we can prove that, watch out. It will not be tolerated at this university.”

Mr. Langenderfer’s comments enraged and amazed some faculty members who accused him of stifling academic freedom, stopping productive discussion, and making it harder to attract qualified professors to UT.

“That’s a truly remarkable statement,” said Dr. Bernard Bopp, an astronomy professor. “I’m startled. This is a university, a place where we search for knowledge and truth, and I’m not at all sure that stance is in line with the mission of a university at all.”

But some trustees defended their chairman, saying Mr. Langenderfer is not calling for a wide-ranging witch hunt, but instead is trying to reduce the number of lies floating around the university’s Bancroft Street campus.

Mr. Langenderfer made his comments at yesterday’s regular meeting of the board of trustees. He said he has received several complaints from parents of UT students who told him that university employees had said the education at UT was becoming substandard, including some who encouraged students to attend other colleges, like Bowling Green State University. “A very limited, very small number of people are not professing truth here,” he said. “They’re spreading lies.”

He said many of the rumors are spread by anonymous letters sent to trustees and the media, and that as a result, “I won’t read anything unsigned. That’s an act of cowardice, and it’s going to fall on deaf ears.”

He said he plans to investigate the staff members who allegedly made the comments and attempt to gather evidence to prove the statements were made. “Once they are identified and verified,” he said, “they will be discharged immediately from this university.”

“We would see this as an assault,” said Dr. Matthew Wikander, an English professor who is president of the UT unit of the American Association of University Professors, which represents tenure-track faculty at the university.

“It clearly seems to be something that violates the letter of our contract, and the traditions of academic freedom.”

Over the last few months, dozens of rumors have been circling the administration, ranging from claims that UT was about to be declared to be in a financial emergency by the state to rumors that certain academic departments are about to be eliminated.

Mr. Langenderfer and other trustees said the rumors are unfounded and that their continued circulation hurts the university.

“These things go to the heart of the university and can keep people away,” said Dan Brennan, the trustee who heads the board’s finance committee.

Mr. Langenderfer, speaking after the meeting, said his comments were exactly what he would say about employees at his own company. He is president of Centaur, Inc., the parent company of Heidtman Steel Products.

“If someone were saying things that were driving away business from my company, I wouldn’t want him working for me,” he said. “No one would.”

But Iris Molotsky, director of public affairs for the national AAUP in Washington, said an educational institution has a different role than an industrial corporation. “If a university is not an open forum for opinions and ideas, then where is that forum?” she said. “Obviously, not steel factories.”

Ms. Molotsky said that a trustee investigating negative comments by faculty and staff likely would make prospective UT employees think twice about taking a job there.

“This is a field with a lot of networking, and word gets around fast,” she said. “When professors are being recruited or offered jobs at universities and colleges, they call those places and talk to their counterparts there. What’s the school like? What’s the atmosphere like?

“And if there are investigations against employees for making [disparaging remarks] about the university, people are not going to want to work there. Why would they want to?”

Other national academic and free-speech authorities said Mr. Langenderfer’s proposal could hurt UT in the long run.

“I would think this would make recruiting people difficult,” said Mark Tushnet, a law professor at Georgetown University in Washington. “Faculty members want to have academic freedom and are drawn to universities and colleges that promote free speech.”

But Mr. Brennan said that Mr. Langenderfer likely did not intend to speak so broadly about people who oppose university policies.

“There is a difference between faculty members making reasonable comments based in fact that can lead to a spirited debate and people maliciously making things up,” Mr. Brennan said. “What, in my mind, Ron was communicating was the board’s intolerance for those who are malicious.”

Mr. Brennan said that Mr. Langenderfer could have done a better job of making his statement more clear. “Ron Langenderfer, in my view, in no way intended for anyone to receive his comments as a muzzling of the critics. But there has to be a muzzling of the liars.”

But Dr. Wikander said that, while it does not condone the spreading of malicious rumors, the administration should expect them when it does not communicate well with others at the university. At its last meeting, the faculty senate said “poor communication” by the administration was its number one concern about the university today.

“The best weapon against malicious rumor is good communication of the truth, and this administration has shown itself to be very poor at communicating with the faculty, the public, the students, and the state.”

Trustee Charles Webb said that people spreading falsehoods about the university are hurting the institution. “People should have a right to say what they think,” he said. “Where the faculty is being objective, that’s fine. But if they’re being spiteful, that’s different.”

But he said “he would not necessarily have had the same reaction” Mr. Langenderfer did, adding, “Nobody on the board is going to agree to an enforcement of an enemies list.”

Mr. Langenderfer did not say during the meeting how he expected to investigate or gather evidence on the alleged perpetrators, or what process he expected to follow to discipline the employees. He would not say what jobs the accused held within the university.

Mr. Langenderfer did not return phone calls last night seeking additional comment.

Dr. Vik Kapoor, the university president who attended the meeting, also did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Joseph Brennan, the university’s spokesman, said he could not comment on what process Mr. Langenderfer might have intended to suggest.

The collective-bargaining agreement between UT and the AAUP deals with the issue of faculty speech. “When [faculty members] speak or write as citizens, they shall be free from University censorship or discipline,” the agreement reads, “but their special position in the community imposes special obligations.

“As scholars and educational officers, they must remember that the public may judge their profession and the University by their utterances. Hence they must at all times be accurate, exercise appropriate restraint, show respect for the opinions of others, and make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the University.”

Mr. Langenderfer’s remarks are the latest in a series of conflicts between Dr. Kapoor’s administration and the faculty.

The administration-faculty conflict received national attention in October, when Dr. Charlene Czerniak, the interim dean of the college of education, made and sent to Dr. Kapoor a list of her college’s faculty, divided by her perceptions of their morale and their opinions of the administration. The so-called “loyalty list” was featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a national publication read by many academics.

In December, Dr. Jack Maynard, then the president of the faculty senate, spoke before the board of trustees’ previous meeting, presenting what he said were the faculty senate’s nine biggest concerns about the university, including financial troubles and the faculty hiring freeze instituted by Dr. Kapoor.

Several board members reacted angrily, saying Dr. Maynard was speaking about his own personal concerns and not on behalf of the faculty’s real concerns. Afterward, the faculty senate passed a resolution saying Dr. Maynard had accurately represented their concerns.

But UT Provost Henry Moon said the faculty senate was not representative of the faculty as a whole.

“They’re only 50 people, and they only represent themselves and a minority of the faculty,” Dr. Moon said. “I speak to the ‘silent majority’ all the time.”

The faculty senate is elected popularly by the UT faculty to represent their concerns, and includes more than a dozen faculty members who hold administrative positions.

Dr. Carol Menning, a professor of history, said Dr. Moon is wrong. “That’s an extremely undemocratic stance,” she said. “One could, by the same reasoning, say that the Ohio legislature or the U.S. Congress doesn’t speak for the people they represent.”

Dr. Wikander said all the conflicts have taken a serious toll on the university.

“Our university requires an atmosphere of free inquiry in which to thrive,” he said. “But many recent actions by the administration seem to be directed toward discouraging free inquiry and free speech by the faculty.”

He said the timing of the remarks seemed “suspect,” given that the union’s contract with the university expires this June. Negotiations for a new pact are scheduled to begin in early April. Louis Jacobs, a law professor at Ohio State University, said discussions about the university usually would be protected by free speech. “One can criticize UT and still retain a position there, so long as the criticism is about a public concern,” he said.

But he said speech that disrupts a work place or goes against one’s job description – such as an admissions officer for the university telling students to attend BGSU instead of UT – might be “less protected.”

“The format of the speech is so important” in determining rights issues, he said.

UT Trustees Richard Stansley, Joan Uhl Browne, and James Tuschman said they had no comment on Mr. Langenderfer’s comments, as did Dr. Moon. Other board members could not be reached for comment yesterday after the meeting.

Blade senior writer Michael D. Sallah contributed to this report.