Response to President Elsener’s Presentation (Nov 19)

At the beginning of every Faculty Assembly meeting, the president has a standing invitation to give a presentation to the faculty. At the November 19, 2021 Faculty Assembly, President Daniel Elsener gave a presentation that focused primarily on the proposal to close the political science program. During that presentation, he made several noteworthy remarks. (1) President Elsener reiterated his claim from the previous Faculty Assembly meeting that the faculty had nothing to fear and he was not angry. (2) President Elsener claimed that the university would continue using “shared governing” to work together to improve Marian. (3) He discussed St. Louis University’s past financial problems to discredit a letter critical of the elimination of political science. (4) President Elsener ended his comments by stating that the decision to close the political science program had been “made.” Below are responses to each remark.

(1) During the October Faculty Assembly, a faculty member stated that some of the faculty were scared because of things happening at Marian. President Elsener seemed noticeably irritated (so much so that he had to assure the faculty he was not “angry” at his November 19 presentation). He stridently told the faculty that they had nothing to worry about if they do their jobs. Instead of trying to understand why some faculty were scared, he denied the validity of their concerns. Unfortunately, there are perfectly good reasons for faculty to be scared. There is the lack of due process and common courtesy in the attempt to eliminate political science; the unethical weaponization of the Teaching and Learning Committee self-study; the seemingly lack of respect for tenure; the frequent threats to eliminate programs; and the questionable departure of a number of faculty in the past five years.

There are many legitimate reasons for faculty members to be scared. Instead of dismissing the faculty’s fears, a Franciscan approach would take the concerns seriously and work towards reconciliation with empathy and humility. Admonishment is not a Franciscan value.

(2) President Elsener claims he wants to continue working together, using “shared governing” to move the university forward. Unfortunately, shared governance is not respected at Marian. Over the past several years, the Marian faculty have seen an erosion of shared governance as the administration continues to impose its will on the curriculum, instruction, and faculty status. “Shared governance” is a recognized division of primary responsibilities in the governance of the university based on expertise. Shared governance is not simply having the faculty discuss an issue, letting the faculty make minor decisions, or giving the faculty a symbolic vote and then ignoring it. Shared governance is a mindset about the relationship between the faculty, administration, president, and board.

Shared governance is a concept formalized in the Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, which was developed by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), American Council on Education (ACE), and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB). Note that Marian University is a member of both ACE and AGB.

The concept of “shared governance” means something. It is not just a catch phrase that you can define or understand however you want. Shared governance requires that the administration focus on its primary responsibilities and respect the faculty’s expertise and stewardship in the areas of the curriculum, instruction, and faculty status.

(3) President Elsener mentioned that he is getting letters and messages opposing the elimination of political science from a lot of misinformed people. He referenced one particular message from a faculty member at St. Louis University. Click here to read this fairly short but powerful message‘. This message challenges the administration to behave morally and act in accordance to Marian’s mission and the spirit of the Franciscan tradition.

President Elsener responded by conveniently ignoring the moral critique in the message. Instead, he suggested the writer was a hypocrite because of financial problems at St. Louis University (there is more below on what really happened at St. Louis). President Elsener’s tactic is telling and appears to betray his real principles and priorities. President Elsener’s primary metric of success for a Catholic university seems to be its financial status, as if the mission, values, and integrity of the Catholic university is secondary and not of central importance (this insight is credited to Jason Eberl).

Can Marian truly retain its Franciscan soul if it is being run like a private for-profit university?

For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?

Matthew 16:26

Marian University was founded as a Catholic and Franciscan institution. As such, the liberal arts (and political science) are part of the soul of Marian University. The administration should be trying to preserve the soul and identity of Marian and not sell it out in pursuit of money, particularly since the university is not in financial exigency or, apparently, even close to it. Some may say “the ends justify the means,” but that is a Machiavellian maxim contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

The Franciscan sponsorship values also form part of Marian’s soul. When the administration fails to model the Franciscan values in its decisions and behavior, it chips away at the soul and integrity of Marian. You reap what you sow. When Marian is run primarily like a for-profit business with secular motivations and schemes, it makes the Franciscan values just a marketing tool and turns the university into a fundamentally secular institution with a Catholic facade.

It is important to mention that President Elsener’s retort to the letter fails to contextualize the past financial problems at St. Louis University. He claimed that the university laid off 120 faculty and staff because of poor financial management. There were layoffs in 2017. However, according to newspaper reports here and here, the layoffs were limited to 120 administrators and staff, which affected about 4% of the approximately 3,000 non-teaching employees. St. Louis University is huge. The layoffs were certainly tragic for those 120 people and the university community, but it was limited to 4% of the administration and staff across the St. Louis University campus. In contrast, 12.5% of Marian full-time faculty members in the arts, humanities, and social sciences have been terminated or felt pushed out in the past five years.

(4) Finally, President Elsener told the Faculty Assembly that the decision to eliminate political science was already “made.” This statement sums up much of what is troubling about the administration.

It seems obvious that the administration has no interest in shared governance. The decision about political science was “made” prior to any discussion with the faculty much less the political science faculty. The decision was “made” before faculty committees had a chance to examine the proposal to eliminate political science. The decision was “made” before the Faculty Assembly was able to publicly discuss the proposal. The decision was “made” before the faculty voted overwhelmingly against the proposal, 104 to 26. The decision was already “made” before the administration knew it failed spectacularly to convince the faculty that political science needed to be eliminated.

It also seems obvious that the administration is not guided by the Franciscan sponsorship values and transformational leadership. When President Elsener declared that the decision to eliminate political science was “made,” it denied the dignity of the faculty members to exercise their God given rationality and be treated with the respect their expertise deserves. It completely ignored the value of reconciliation, which is essential for the well-being of the Marian community and good decision-making. It infantilized the faculty by denying their role as responsible stewards of the curriculum and faculty status. It disregarded the concept of justice by failing to abide by formal procedures and the norms of mutual respect and common courtesy.

Similarly, when a decision has been “made” without the ability to convince the vast majority of the faculty, it was a failure of transformational leadership. The term “transformational leadership” is used a lot at Marian and something that seems to be a source of pride. However, transformational leadership has a particular meaning. It emphasizes relationships and includes the ability to inspire and motivate followers to internalize and embrace the organization’s goals. From the perspective of transformational leadership, the proposal to eliminate political science was a 104 to 26 failure.

Moreover, it seems that the leadership style of the administration tends to be much more transactional as opposed to transformational despite its supposed aspirations to the later. Transactional leadership is leader focused. It prioritizes the goals of the leader, emphasizes the central control of outcomes and decision-making, and requires the presence of a strong personality. Unfortunately, transactional leadership is normally antithetical to all the Franciscan sponsorship values and the concept of shared governance.

Given the lack of respect for shared governance, the for-profit orientation of the administration, the apparent disregard for the Franciscan sponsorship values, and an emphasis on transactional leadership, is it really surprising that many of the faculty at Marian are scared or dissatisfied?