Is UT’s Langenderfer a bully or just a misunderstood leader? Controversial chairman stirs emotions

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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When Ronald Langenderfer joined the University of Toledo board of trustees in 1993, he had lunch with faculty leaders.

“One of the first things he said was ‘You know, the most severe problem higher education has today is tenure,'” remembered Dr. Carlton DeFosse. “That went over like a lead balloon.”

Thus began the tumultuous relationship between Mr. Langenderfer and the UT faculty.

At the university, opinions on Mr. Langenderfer seem to come in only two varieties: You love him or you hate him.

To some, he is a tireless, effective leader, using his position as chairman of the board of trustees to jumpstart a troubled university. To others, he is a tyrant and a bully, bent on stamping out opposition and running an institution of higher learning with the sensibilities of a steel magnate.

He handed his enemies new firepower last month, when at a board meeting, he railed against university employees he said were spreading rumors about UT. Those dissidents, he said, would be investigated and fired.

Days later, the UT chapter of the American Association of University Professors passed a resolution calling for Mr. Langenderfer’s resignation.

Occurring on the heels of the resignation of Trustee Jacqueline Knepper – who said she was leaving because of her “loss of confidence in the leadership of this board” – the union vote was a stinging rebuke for a university trying to recover from a decade of declining enrollment.

At the center of the storm is Mr. Langenderfer, a 55-year-old steel company president who has had trouble translating his success in the private sector to public acclaim.

Interestingly, his friends and critics both use the same words to describe his personality: “fierce,” “hard-driving,” “passionate,” “aggressive.” To his friends, the descriptions are the sign of an active leader committed to getting things done. To his critics, they are signs of an autocratic style.

Faculty leaders at UT say Chairman Langenderfer does not have the educational experience nor temperament to lead a university. His supporters point out that he spent years on two other local educational boards: Lourdes College and St. John’s Jesuit High School. Officials who worked with him at those schools give him high marks.

Wayne Milewski, St. John’s board vice chairman, lauds his generosity with time and money.

“He’ll give you the shirt off his back,” Mr. Milewski said. “If there was anybody I knew who had a problem financially, Ron would undoubtedly be the first phone call I’d make to help them out. Undoubtedly.”

But for many members of the UT faculty, just mentioning the name “Langenderfer” is enough to put a sour expression on their faces.

“A lot of times when you bring a business perspective to an academic board, it’s not well received,” said Tom Noe, a childhood friend who is on the Ohio Board of Regents.

“I think you’re seeing that now. Higher education is a different animal. If you make what may be the best business decision, it might not be the best, or the best received, for an educational institution. Sometimes you come out looking like a bad guy.”

His decisions have not alienated the faculty so much as his style.

“He was extremely domineering, and very biased,” said Dr. Harriet Adams, retired head of UT’s women’s studies department, who served on the presidential search committee with Mr. Langenderfer in 1998.

She said one committee meeting was particularly memorable when Mr. Langenderfer became enraged when someone criticized him and other UT trustees for trying to rig the presidential search in favor of Dr. Vik Kapoor, who eventually got the job as UT’s president.

“Langenderfer just banged on the table and turned bright pink,” Dr. Adams said. “He is a very, very angry man, with a hair trigger temper.”

After repeated attempts to contact him, Mr. Langenderfer on Friday said through a university spokesman that he declined to be interviewed for this article.

A start in steel

Ron Langenderfer was born on Aug. 4, 1944, the son of a tool-and-die maker, and grew up in Swanton. He attended Swanton High School, then went on to UT, where he received a degree in business administration in 1966.

Right out of college, he started working in the steel industry for a variety of companies, including Parker Steel. According to a 1993 resume, in 1978 he founded and became president of Stateline Steel Corp., a flat-rolled steel service center. The company grew rapidly in the early 1980s before being sold to outside investors in 1986. Mr. Langenderfer remained on as chairman.

According to his resume, his company “failed under new ownership,” and, in 1991, it was sold again, this time to Centaur, Inc. He became president of Centaur, which is the holding company for Heidtman Steel Products and two other industrial units. Heidtman, the largest unit, has 19 plant locations and serves markets in 34 states.

Mr. Langenderfer lives on Pilliod Road in Springfield Township.

Mr. Noe described him as “an overachiever. He never did anything halfway. He took a steel company from scratch and built it up.”

But for the last 20 years, much of Mr. Langenderfer’s time has been spent away from his business, volunteering for a variety of community organizations.

One of his biggest commitments has been to St. John’s Jesuit High School, whose board he has twice chaired.

“Ron was generous, hard working, fiercely loyal to the mission of the school,” said the Rev. Don Vettese, St. John’s president. “In terms of his time, he went far beyond what was obligated, and there wasn’t anything in it for him.”

People who served with Mr. Langenderfer on the St. John’s board remember him as aggressive, active, and no-nonsense. “He was excellent because he had an agenda,” George Ballas said. “There wasn’t a lot of wasted time.”

Mr. Milewski, the St. John’s board’s vice chairman and a friend of Mr. Langenderfer’s for more than 20 years, said Mr. Langenderfer provided needed energy. “We were going through some unique times. Things were being done too lackadaisically, and we needed someone to come in and organize or motivate us, direct us. He did that.”

John Szuch, who serves on the St. John’s board as well as on the board of the UT Foundation, said Mr. Langenderfer is “great to have on your team.” He’s an aggressive guy, a very personable guy,” he said. “When he’s on your team, he’s 110 per cent. There’s no half speed.”

Mr. Szuch is chairman and CEO of Capital Bank, on whose board Mr. Langenderfer sits.

From 1988 to 1993, Mr. Langenderfer served on the Lourdes College board, a period when the student body grew 80 per cent.

“I remember him being very dedicated to what we were all about,” said Sister Ann Francis Klimkowski, president of Lourdes. “He was certainly engaged. If he had an opinion, he stated it. We were looking for expertise, he certainly brought expertise with him.”

Sister Ann Francis said Mr. Langenderfer was helpful in improving fund-raising and in planning the college’s expansion.

She said that Mr. Langenderfer joined her college’s board because of his close friendship with John Savage, who was then on the Lourdes board. Mr. Savage served on the UT board in the 1970s and, until his death in 1993, was a major benefactor to UT. Savage Hall on the university campus is named for him.

“John recommended him for our board, we interviewed him, and he seemed to be a good match,” she said.

Mr. Langenderfer’s friendship with Mr. Savage was likely a help when, in 1993, Governor Voinovich appointed him to a nine-year term on the UT board.

“He wanted to be on that board so badly,” Mr. Noe said. “He really takes it seriously. I’ve been on enough boards with people who just go through the motions to appreciate that.”

At the time of his appointment, he was touted by the governor’s office as “an outsider to the old-boys network” in Toledo.

In an interview with The Blade when he was appointed, Mr. Langenderger described himself: “I was raised in Swanton. My father was a tool-and-die maker. I’ve worked hard for everything I’ve ever gotten. I have my own ideas. I’m certainly not bullied; nobody has ever gotten away with that with me…. And I will stand up for what is right. I am known for that.”

When Mr. Langenderfer joined the board, it was mostly made up of Democrats, appointees left over from Governor Celeste in the 1980s. But as the numbers began to shift more toward Republican appointees, Mr. Langenderfer began to assert himself as a leader.

In 1998, the board’s chairman, Richard Glowacki, learned he did not have the votes to be re-elected to his post, in part because of opposition from Mr. Langenderfer. As an alternative, Mr. Glowacki agreed to step aside and become chairman of the search committee to find a replacement for retiring President Dr. Frank Horton. In June, 1998, Mr. Langenderfer became board chairman.

But even though Mr. Glowacki was the chairman of the search committee, several who served on that group said that Mr. Langenderfer was its dominant force.

“He would throw out candidates who could have been perfect for odd reasons,” said Dr. Adams, the former women’s studies head. “There were people who were 55 whom he said were too old, but others who were 65 who would be considered.”

Mr. Langenderfer was an early supporter of the candidacy of engineering Dean Dr. Vik Kapoor, 54, and, according to several members of the committee, began pushing his choice hard.

“It was clear early on that he was working very hard to get Vik at least into the finalist pool. It was clear from the way he talked about Vik and the way he talked about other candidates,” Dr. Adams said. “He would just cut off discussion whenever he wanted to, even though he was not the chair of the committee. He dominated. It was a very hard committee for people to speak freely on. I think people were intimidated.”

During one meeting, Mr. Langenderfer erupted in anger at Mr. Glowacki after Mr. Glowacki suggested that the search was a sham and that Dr. Kapoor’s selection was “a done deal.”

Several sources present at that meeting said Mr. Langenderfer stood at the table, spoke heatedly, and pointed his finger at Mr. Glowacki as he denied what was widely suspected, that a core group of the board had made up its mind in favor of Dr. Kapoor before the search was finished.

“He got out of his chair and started going around the room toward Glowacki,” Dr. Adams said. “I was paralyzed with fear. To everybody’s incredible relief, he did not in fact go all the way to Glowacki. The meeting disbanded after that. I cannot tell you how traumatic that was.”

Several days later, members of the committee received a letter from Mr. Langenderfer in which he apologized.

“He blew up,” Mr. Glowacki said. “Then very shortly thereafter, he circulated a letter saying he has a good heart and good intentions, but he just gets mad.”

Daniel Brennan, a trustee who served on the search committee and who supported Dr. Kapoor, denied that Mr. Langenderfer yelled, but said, “there was a stern tone to his voice.”

“My view is Glowacki was baiting him,” Mr. Brennan said. He said Mr. Glowacki, a Yale and UT-educated millionaire real-estate broker, was “condescending” to people to whom he felt superior. “Some of us felt Dick Glowacki had made up his mind as to who [the president] wasn’t going to be,” Mr. Brennan said, meaning Dr. Kapoor.

“The unfortunate thing about this whole incident is that Ron Langenderfer cares a great deal about the whole university,” Mr. Brennan said.

Dr. Adams, after serving on the same committee, has a very different opinion. “He’s a bully, and he loses control.”

Today, she calls the nine months she served on the search committee with Mr. Langenderfer “the most frightening experience I’ve had as a professional. He’s very frightening. I was physically scared, and I’m not scared very easily.”

The board of trustees selected Dr. Kapoor as president in November, 1998. Two months later, Mr. Glowacki resigned from the board and moved to Florida. Dr. Adams retired in January after 28 years at the university.

Relations with UT faculty

Throughout his time on the board, Mr. Langenderfer has had less than perfect relations with UT’s faculty.

Dr. DeFosse, who for four years was president of the faculty union, the UT chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said he had little contact with Mr. Langenderfer after the initial luncheon where he was critical of granting tenure to faculty.

During that time, Dr. DeFosse said, “there was not any interest on the board to try to develop a relationship with the leadership of the AAUP.”

“I don’t see anything in his behavior since then that shows his attitude has changed,” the professor said. “He doesn’t understand higher education.”

Dr. DeFosse points to a 1995 incident when the university was in the process of changing from quarters to semesters. Many faculty opposed the switch, saying it would be too expensive and would hurt enrollment. The faculty senate voted 33-2 to oppose the change.

Dr. DeFosse and Dr. Ethel Wilcox, then president of the senate, presented the senate’s opinion to the board at a committee meeting.

“Langenderfer got very upset with us for raising these questions,” Dr. DeFosse said. “He said, ‘If you don’t like the way the ship’s being captained, then you should jump ship.’ That’s his mentality: Get the hell out if you don’t like what we’re doing.”

Dr. DeFosse said that Dr. Wilcox took abuse from Mr. Langenderfer several times. “I remember him telling Ethel once, ‘If I had an employee like you, I’d fire her.'”

Dr. DeFosse and Dr. Wilcox have since left the university. Dr. DeFosse said he’d “had enough.” Reached Friday, Dr. Wilcox said she didn’t want to speak about her years at UT.

Then last year, in December, came another confrontation with faculty leaders. Dr. Jack Maynard, then president of the faculty senate, spoke at a board meeting about the faculty’s biggest concerns about UT. They included morale problems, the university’s financial state, and the need to fill vacancies in academic departments.

Mr. Langenderfer, however, told Dr. Maynard he was deliberately spreading rumors and that the concerns were his own.

“The statements that he made are very inaccurate,” Chairman Langenderfer said at the meeting. “We don’t believe that those are the concerns of the faculty en masse.”

He said Dr. Maynard was trying to unfairly attack Dr. Kapoor but told the president that “these bullets aren’t going to strike you. This board is going to deviate the bullets.”

The faculty senate, at its next meeting, passed a resolution defending Dr. Maynard, who has since left to become a dean at the University of Michigan-Flint. The resolution stated that the concerns Dr. Maynard presented to the UT board were those of the entire faculty.

Then last month, on Feb. 23, Mr. Langenderfer enraged the faculty again. At a board meeting, he said he was disgusted by what he called false rumors claiming that UT is near financial collapse or that key departments are about to be shut. He said that a small group of disgruntled university employees committed to the “total destruction” of UT are responsible.

“They will be investigated,” he said. “If we can prove that, watch out. It will not be tolerated.”

He said the employees “will be discharged immediately from this university.”

The comments produced an uproar among faculty and staff, who said that it is a violation of academic freedom to threaten firings for discussion about the university. Mr. Langenderfer said that if some of his employees at Centaur were spreading similar rumors, he’d treat them the same way – a comment that some faculty seized upon to argue he has too much of a business perspective.

The next day, Mr. Langenderfer issued an “open letter” to the university community to explain himself, but which maintained that people spreading malicious rumors would face disciplinary action.

Mr. Langenderfer’s defenders say that the faculty has ulterior motives for opposing the trustee.

“He’s, I would say, a rather opinionated person, and the faculty is not anxious to be very productive,” said Frederic Wolfe, a member of the board of the UT Foundation, the university’s fund-raising and development arm. “They don’t like to go along too much. I think they seem to be enjoying the problems over there as much as The Blade does because it makes such good copy…. They are not very cooperative people.”

Mr. Wolfe said that sort of relationship is common at many universities: “There is always a sort of tension in the relationship between the administration and the faculty. There’s nothing terribly peculiar about this.”

Mr. Noe, who has been on the boards of Bowling Green State University and Lourdes College, said that the faculty revolt could be related to the upcoming contract negotiations between AAUP and the university. The current collective bargaining agreement expires in June.

Soon after Mr. Langenderfer’s “rumors” comment, the AAUP voted unanimously to call for his resignation from the board, saying “Ronald Langenderfer has demonstrated that he lacks the temperament and the understanding of higher education to serve on the Board of Trustees.”

The Collegian, the campus newspaper, also called on him to resign.

Last week, the faculty senate voted to condemn Mr. Langenderfer’s comments, but tabled an amendment that would have called for his resignation. Dr. Larry Wilcox (no relation to Dr. Ethel Wilcox), a history professor, made some of the most impassioned comments against the trustee.

“He has treated faculty with utter contempt,” Dr. Wilcox said. “How much more will this body need to say ‘Enough is enough,’ to say ‘Would you please go away so we can try to fix some of the damage that’s been done?'”

Last week, Dr. Larry Wilcox said he was moved to make the comments by the problems he sees around him at the university.

“I keep losing really good friends and colleagues, people who gave decades of their lives to this institution, people who didn’t really want to retire but just couldn’t take it anymore,” said Dr. Larry Wilcox, a former chair of the faculty senate who was a faculty representative to the board for four years before Mr. Langenderfer joined it.

“I keep comparing it to the quite different situation at Bowling Green, where they’ve put in some really top notch people, and they’re doing very well. It just makes me want to cry.”

Dr. Wilcox has been at UT for 32 years and is a former winner of the university’s outstanding teacher award. He said that, while faculty relations were not always good under Dr. Horton’s presidency, “they’ve gotten worse. All of us were hoping it wouldn’t get any worse, but it has. It’s self delusion to think otherwise.”

A new dialogue

Since Mr. Langenderfer’s most recent comments, board and faculty leaders have made efforts to bridge the gap between them.

Trustees have met with the leadership of the AAUP and the faculty senate to open dialogue and get past the previous disputes. But both sides acknowledge it could be difficult.

“I think we would all like to forget that last week happened,” said Dr. Matthew Wikander, president of the AAUP. “Unfortunately, it did happen.”

Defenders of Mr. Langenderfer who are not directly involved with UT have said that, while he may have done things to anger people, he means well.

“If Ron made statements like that, they were probably intended to protect the university, and he probably thought it was in the best interests of the school,” Father Vettese said. “Now, you can want to help the university and make a mistake and say something that doesn’t express yourself. But I’m sure he was trying to protect UT.”

Mr. Noe said that “Ron’s heart is always for what’s best for the institution. Sometimes he gets very excited, very passionate about it, and sometimes he may be misunderstood.”

Dr. Kapoor did not return repeated phone calls for this article, but shortly after Mr. Langenderfer’s comments to the board, he put forth a similar defense: “Sometimes people speak from the heart, and they make a mistake,” he said. “But it’s a genuine mistake, not malicious.”

But some faculty members, current and retired, don’t believe that the board will be able to make amends with Mr. Langenderfer at the helm.

“It would require a major change of attitude on the board to persuade and convince the faculty that they really want to resolve the problems and not just dictate the resolutions,” Dr. DeFosse said. “But that’s not his style. His style is autocratic, dictatorial.”

“You get frustrated,” he said. “You start to think there’s nothing this guy can do that’s right. You don’t understand why they’re making the decisions they do. You get kind of disillusioned after a while.”

UT Trustee Richard Stansley, Jr., one of the board members who have met recently with faculty leaders, said Mr. Langenderfer’s strengths are mostly related to his business experience. “He can look at things from a market perspective in trying to find solutions for things like declining enrollment, look at things like marketing.”

“In business, you’re driven by market forces; so you’re constantly forced to look for improvements. The competitive pressures require it. I think that’s the perspective that Ron adds to the board.”

As for his weaknesses, Mr. Stansley said, “One is public relations. Everybody wishes they had better skills, and I’m sure that he regrets his comments. Anybody who could reflect back on it would say, ‘Boy, I wish I could be more polished and do better in the future.’ I think he could do a lot better at verbalizing his thoughts.”

Mr. Langenderfer’s other main weakness, Mr. Stansley said, is a lack of patience. “The business community and business people are not used to changes taking a long time,” he said. “That’s the nature of a public institution. The reason for shared governance is so there is a balance between the faculty and the board and administration.”

Blade staff writers Tom Troy and Lisa Abraham contributed to this article.