UT trustees seek cease-fire

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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The University of Toledo’s board of trustees wants to get beyond its sometimes rancorous relationship with the faculty, several trustees said at a strategic planning retreat yesterday.

“It’s like going through marriage counseling,” said Trustee Joan Uhl Browne. “It’s not going to do us any good to just rehash all the same old arguments we’ve been having forever,” she said. “Trust us: this board does not hold the faculty in contempt.”

The retreat, held at the Toledo Club, is part of the board’s regular planning process. Similar retreats have been held at least four times over the last five years.

In part to improve relations with UT’s employees, university leaders invited representatives from several campus employee organizations, including the faculty senate, the Professional Staff Council, and the union that represents its police officers.

During the meeting, which lasted more than five hours, the division between the faculty and the board came up several times.

“Two weeks ago, this meeting might have been different,” said Dr. Matthew Wikander, president of the UT’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, the union that represents almost 500 faculty members.

Dr. Wikander was referring to the comments of trustees’ chairman Ronald Langenderfer at the Feb. 23 board meeting. Mr. Langenderfer said a small group of university employees was spreading malicious rumors about the university and that he wanted to search them out and have them fired. Many faculty and staff members said his comment amounted to a witch hunt and a violation of academic freedom.

Mr. Langenderfer did not attend the meeting. Charles Webb, the board’s vice chairman, said he was sick.

Dr. Wikander denied that faculty members purposefully were sabotaging the university. “Nobody wants to be at the place that becomes the next Central State,” referring to the Ohio university that went through a financial crisis in the mid 1990s.

But the union head said that many faculty do not consider Mr. Langenderfer’s comments out of the ordinary for the board. “A lot of faculty believe this was not unique or a fluke, but reflected an attitude we have been troubled by for some time, an attitude that we have identified with the board of trustees for sometime,” Dr. Wikander said.

Dr. Wikander called the disagreements between the academic-minded faculty and the mostly business-oriented board “a clash of cultures.”

Dr. Harvey Wolff, chair of the faculty senate, criticized the board and administration for “one-way communication” and for not consulting the faculty on decisions that affect their lives.

When several trustees spoke of a partnership between all elements of the university to improve UT, Dr. Wolff responded, “I think the faculty has felt left out of that partnership.”

But several trustees said that incidents like Mr. Langenderfer’s comments and other disputes with the faculty have been overblown, and that the faculty has the full support of the board.

“Langenderfer’s remarks – I don’t want to hear that anymore,” Trustee James Tuschman said. “If anyone here actually thinks that we would compromise academic freedom or compromise freedom of speech at this university, then we ought to get off the board, because we would have no place in higher education.

“We need to put that stuff behind us. I don’t want to look back,” Mr. Tuschman said. “Maybe I was wrong, maybe others were wrong, but I don’t want to assign blame. We need to look forward.”

After the faculty-board discussion, the board members discussed their goals and objectives for the next five years, ranging from increased enrollment to better alumni relations.

The day’s discussions were led by facilitator Mel Hensey, a management consultant based in Maineville, O., near Cincinnati. Mr. Hensey has worked with management teams at more than a dozen colleges and universities, including Purdue, Texas A&M, and the University of Cincinnati.

Like UT President Vik Kapoor, he is an engineer, and is the author of Collective Excellence: Building Effective Teams, a book targeted at engineering management published by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

At one point, Mr. Hensey handed out small foam balls to the participants, saying that anyone who was critical of another’s comments should be pelted by them.

Only a single ball was thrown, a playful toss at Mr. Webb, who disagreed slightly on a procedural point brought up by Mr. Tuschman.

The meeting began with all the officials present being asked to introduce themselves by saying what they appreciate most about UT. Dr. Henry Moon, the university provost, took the opportunity to compare the university to the lead character in Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky movies.

“We take our beatings, get battered and bloody, but we keep getting up,” Dr. Moon said. “And we even win one once in a while.”

Mr. Hensey said that he had not yet negotiated his fee with Dr. Kapoor, but added that he is “expensive.” Dr. Kapoor stayed silent for most of the meeting, saying at one point he was “here to listen.”

Seven of the nine trustees attended. Along with Mr. Langenderfer, Trustee Dan Brennan was absent. Mr. Webb said Mr. Brennan, who lives in the Cleveland area, had a scheduling conflict.

The retreat will conclude this morning with the selection of a final list of goals and objectives for the university.