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St. Vincent faculty quietly revolts

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Thursday, April 3, 2008
 

On the surface, St. Vincent College near Latrobe is a picture of tranquillity.

Surrounded by sprawling farmland, the campus is a mix of old, stately buildings and modern structures.

But beneath the apparent calm, there is a quiet faculty revolt under way against the school's president, H. James Towey, a one-time confidant of Mother Teresa and former head of President Bush's Office of Community and Faith-based Initiatives.

Namely, professors have accused Towey of:

• inappropriately interfering in the accreditation process under way at the Catholic college by "sanitizing" a self-study report.

• ignoring the faculty's recommendations for a new vice president of academic affairs by naming Dr. John Smetanka to the post.

• "seriously eroding the ... hallmark sense of community" at the 162-year-old Benedictine school.

The confidential letter, signed by 31 of the school's 44 tenured professors, indicates they have "grave concern for the current state of the college" because of Towey's leadership.

Towey met with the faculty March 7 to discuss the letter and said he is listening to the professors' criticisms.

"No one wants to be the subject of a letter like that," Towey said in a recent interview. "I've tried to understand why they feel so strongly. I took the letter seriously. I obviously need to communicate with the faculty better."

However, Towey said he encourages this type of discussion.

"I didn't find the letter at all threatening," he added. "I find dissent very healthy. Everybody can't think alike in a college community."

Despite the controversy of his 21-month tenure, Towey said he has no plans to resign and doesn't expect to be replaced.

When asked during a forum with students Wednesday evening if he felt he was being pressured to step down, Towey sought to assure them that is not the case.

"There's been no call for that and I'm thankful to God I'm here," he said.

But some faculty members say the dispute has pitted the professors who also are members of the Order of St. Benedict against their fellow monks who serve on the board of directors.

Some believe the faculty letter overstated the severity of the situation.

Archabbot Douglas Nowicki, chancellor of St. Vincent, said, "Everybody was a little surprised by the tone of it. They all felt the relationship needed to be improved. I didn't see it as a big rift between the faculty and president."

J. Christopher Donahue, president of the board of directors and CEO of Federated Investors in Pittsburgh, said the letter's harsh tone "reflects more the heat of the views than the reality of the situation."

"I see it as serious, but I wouldn't use the term crisis," he added.

Dr. Susan Sommers, president of the Faculty Council, would not discuss the matter.

But in a letter to directors, Sommers said the faculty has an "overwhelming concern ... in regard to the current state of affairs in the governance of the college."

Father Chrysostom Schlimm, a tenured professor who signed the faculty letter, had little to say about the issue.

"It's unfortunate that someone notified the press and media," Schlimm said. "It's an internal matter that should be resolved internally."

But not everyone was reluctant to comment.

Father Thomas Acklin, a member of the board of directors, said the faculty letter was "so unprofessional and the allegations so unsubstantiated that I have trouble understanding how it can further a spirit of dialogue that it seeks."

"I note also that my colleagues who signed the letter employ the same techniques and attitudes in their letter which they attribute to President Towey: intimidation, humiliation and coercion."

At a March 14 meeting, the school's directors reiterated their support for Towey and urged the faculty to "work together in the Benedictine spirit of cooperation" to resolve their differences with Towey.

Some speculate the trouble may result from the fact Towey is not a monk or an academic. Towey is an attorney.

And during last evening's forum with students, Towey said as much.

"Maybe it's because I'm new to academia, but I'll keep working on it," he said.

Towey said his predecessor, James Will, was the first president hired from outside the Benedictine community and academia.

He admits that the tremendous growth experienced over the past two years has created a "fatigue" among professors.

"There's no question I have charged hard since I got here," Towey said. "I feel a real urgency. The pace has picked up. I'm a pretty hands-on president."

As for the ongoing accreditation evaluation by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Towey said that changes he made to the report were stylistic changes rather than changes in content. He has agreed to restore the material that was changed.

Accreditation is a voluntary process that requires colleges and universities to meet certain standards. A self-evaluation is part of the process.

As a result of the letter, the directors adopted a resolution encouraging the faculty and Towey to "work together in the spirit of Benedictine cooperation" to resolve their differences and follow procedures in the faculty handbook. The directors also expressed confidence in Towey and reaffirmed the appointment of Smetanka as vice president for academic affairs.

St. Vincent, which has more than 1,700 students, was founded in 1846 by Father Boniface Wimmer, a Benedictine priest from Bavaria who established the monastery at the same time.

 

 
 


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