SLU: Prof. Matthew Hall Criticizes Lawrence Biondi; Trustees Call Him Immature Liar

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Father Lawrence Biondi.
  • Father Lawrence Biondi.

Over the past month, we've reported on the latest controversies of Saint Louis University, first with the high-profile resignation of the theology chair and most recently with the departure of the interim law dean over inappropriate comments. At the center of much of the conflict at SLU is Father Lawrence Biondi, the president who has faced intense backlash from faculty, and the board of trustees, which so far hasn't done much publicly to address the overwhelming dissent.

University officials and the board have been notoriously silent, but when assistant professor Matthew Hall wrote to them to explain why he would be leaving SLU, they responded -- with personal insults and attacks.

"It's extremely difficult," Hall tells Daily RFT of his departure from SLU. "I wish I could stay here and keep teaching these students."

What went wrong?

See also: - Resigned Chair Jay Hammond On Lawrence Biondi: "He Creates a Culture of Fear" - SLU: More Faculty Protest As Theology Dept. Chair Jay Hammond Resigns - Lawrence Biondi: "To Those Of You Who Have Been Critical...I Have Listened" - Dean Tom Keefe Resigns Over Offensive Remarks: "If I Was Them, I'd Fire Me"

Hall, an assistant professor of political science and law, has a detailed explanation about why, despite his best efforts, he cannot stay at SLU and has accepted a job offer at the University of Notre Dame. More on that below.

But what's most noteworthy about his conflict with the administration is his interaction with members of the board of trustees, whom he wrote to in an effort to explain his concerns with the administration and Biondi.

In a December e-mail with the subject "Why I am Leaving Saint Louis University," he explains his frustration with the administration's treatment of faculty and urges the trustees to take action against Biondi (who faced an overwhelming no-confidence vote from faculty last year).

Professor Matthew Hall - VIA SLU.EDU
  • via slu.edu
  • Professor Matthew Hall

Three replies in particular surprised Hall, who sent us the entire e-mail exchange.

One trustee writes:

I find almost nothing about your correspondence to ring true. As a Trustee I have deep connections to the university and my second daughter just graduated from SLU this last Friday.

The fact that you don't say "To be honest" until the beginning of your 6th paragraph is very telling. Does that admit your not otherwise?

I hope you find life easier in your new path.

Another says:

Good luck in your future academic endeavors and I hope that you reach a higher level of maturity in your next assignment.

Have a great Holiday Season!

And a third goes after Hall for seeking a better salary from SLU:

Gee Matt---I went back and reviewed your emails to me this past week---in two of them you made it clear it was about the money--"my main concern is salary" and in another you said if we had "matched your offer" you would have stayed. You also wrote, when seeking more money, that "you really liked it here", and when that effort failed you still said you were "very sorry to be leaving." I also recall our meetings (they were always about money) and in none of them did you ever say a word about what a terrible place this University was.... your most recent note refects a struggle between blowing your own horn and tearing down this university and attacking Father Biondi---Good luck Matt; I hope you make a lot of money.

Continue for our interview with Matthew Hall and for the full letter and responses.

"What was so shocking to me was I just assumed these are all successful business people; surely they would conduct themselves with civility," Hall says. "I was just personally shocked that grown-ups could talk that way, in writing, in a professional context.... I was just sort of blown away."

Hall, who has been at SLU for three-and-a-half years, replied back to each of them trying to explain his situation but didn't get anywhere. The trustees in question did not respond to a request for comment from Daily RFT and neither did a university spokesman.

Campus. - VIA SLU.EDU

As Hall's original letter, full version on view below, explains, he chose to accept a position elsewhere after he says he was misled about his salary expectations.

Last year, Hall, who started in the political-science department only, says he worked out an arrangement with the dean of arts and sciences and the dean of the law school to get a joint appointment with a commensurate salary increase (law professors are typically paid more than political-science professors).

After a long hiring process -- during which he understood that he would be receiving a salary increase through the joint appointment -- top administrators told him that he could have the job, but not a salary boost. This decision, he says, was made at the last minute.

Additionally, Hall says, he was also not pleased that the law school dean resigned (prompting the appointment of the interim dean who also just resigned) and that the administration was looking to increase class size, encourage online classes, abolish tenure and more.

All of this, combined with his ongoing frustration with Biondi, prompted him to accept a position at Notre Dame.

"I'm no longer scared for myself at SLU," says Hall, explaining that he decided to engage the board of trustees once he officially decided on leaving.

In response to the criticisms that he's being selfish about his salary, Hall says, "You think I'm chasing money?....I'm a professor."

And for many reasons, he wishes he didn't have to make this choice.

"I have so many friends and family around. There's no doubt about it -- I want to stay in St. Louis," Hall says. "I can't emphasize enough that while I have a lot of bad things to say about the administration, every other part of the university is wonderfully remarkable."

He says it's time for SLU to move on without the current president.

"It's very difficult to imagine the university improving without Father Biondi stepping aside," Hall says.

Continue for his fall letter and responses.

Here's Hall's letter.

Dear Board of Trustees,

My name is Matthew Hall. For the last three and a half years I have been an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Law at Saint Louis University. Next year I will be leaving to take a job at the University of Notre Dame. I am writing to share my experience during the last few years in the hopes that my story will demonstrate the pervasive and serious problems at this institution.

Although my career is still in its early stages, I have attained several prominent professional accomplishments. I graduated summa cum laude from Northwestern University with departmental honors in each of my three majors. I received my PhD in political science, with distinction, from Yale University in four years, and I published my book, The Nature of Supreme Court Power, with Cambridge University Press, the top publisher in my field. My teaching evaluations are consistently at the top of my department; the average student rating of my overall performance is 4.7 out of 5. Last year, I received the Robert S. Johnson, S.J., award for the best teacher in the social sciences.

These qualifications make me very competitive on the job market, and many colleagues urged me to apply to higher-ranked universities. But I love St. Louis. I grew up in southern Illinois, and I have lots of friends and family in the area. I love my students and my colleagues. I wanted to stay. So last year I worked out an arrangement with the Dean of Arts and Sciences and the Dean of the Law School to get a joint appointment with a commensurate salary increase (law professors are usually paid more than political science professors). Dr. Patankar agreed to the proposal, and the law school conducted the slow and rigorous hiring process, which took several months and culminated in the standard daylong interview process that would be used for outside candidates. But then, at the eleventh hour, Dr. Patankar reneged on his word. He decided I could have the joint appointment, but not the salary increase.

As a result of this experience, as well as the resignation of the dean of the law school and Dr. Patankar's recent proposal to increase class size, encourage online classes, and abolish tenure, I went on the job market this fall. Last week, I received an offer for a tenure-track position at Notre Dame with a sizeable salary increase. I asked SLU if they would match the offer, and the Dean of Arts and Sciences recommended that the university do so. But Dr. Patankar decided that because lots of people have offers this year, the university will deal with all of them together in the spring, despite the fact that most academic job offers come with only two weeks to decide. The Dean explained that waiting until the spring would ensure all of the faculty leave; apparently the vice president did not care.

In other words, the university has offered me nothing to stay. I wanted to share my experience with you, not for my own sake, but rather for the sake of my colleagues and students here at SLU. I accepted the offer from Notre Dame yesterday, so I will be leaving the SLU community. And I am not alone. I know of at least five other faculty members in political science and the law school who are also leaving. But many good people are still here, and this university cannot hope to thrive without keeping them here. You cannot build a quality institution without hiring and retaining quality people. Yet, the university systematically encourages the best teachers and researchers to leave, and many are starting to do so. I now understand that Dr. Patankar's response was probably connected to his imminent resignation. But, regardless of the circumstances, the university cannot ignore the fact that dozens of faculty are getting outside offers and will leave if they are offered nothing from SLU. It is a slap in the face to be told that keeping me here is worth absolutely nothing to the administration, and many others will feel the same way.

To be honest, even if SLU had matched the offer, I don't know if I could have stayed here. I love my students and colleagues, but the atmosphere on this campus has been toxic since I arrived. Faculty members are repeatedly ignored by the administration. Faculty--even senior, tenured faculty--genuinely fear retribution from President Biondi. (In a meeting after Dean Clark's resignation, one of the top professors in the law school told the faculty that he firmly believed fighting Fr. Biondi in any way would result in him shutting down the entire law school. It sounded absurd to me, but he was serious and the faculty took him seriously.) Students fear the president as well; some of my students have told me they want to protest against Fr. Biondi, but they are afraid. The student athletes were told that if they do so they would be kicked off their teams; as a result, all of the students fear losing their scholarships if they speak their mind.

The university is also perpetually managed in a haphazard manner. Funds are misused, promises are broken, and productivity is constantly hindered. I once had to go all the way to the VP-AA to get approval for a $200 travel reimbursement. My health insurance has been cancelled three times in the last two years because of HR mistakes. (Twice I had been accidentally terminated from the university.) In the first two years I was here, nearly every Dean, Associate Dean, and member of the upper-administration was fired (or "resigned"). Even deeply respected and beloved administrators like Don Brennan and Annette Clark were tossed out without hesitation or remorse. (In the four years I've been here, there have been four different deans of the law school; next year they'll get a fifth). In this environment, no one feels safe, no one feels optimistic, and no one can focus on their teaching and research. As a young professor looking ahead to my career, how could I ever feel confident putting down roots at a place like this?

I am heartened by the Board of Trustee's initial steps to address these problems. The collaborative efforts between the Board and the Faculty Senate are very promising, and it was clearly the right time for Dr. Patankar to return to teaching. However, as nearly every faculty member on this campus knows, these steps are not sufficient to resolve this crisis. Hiring and defending Dr. Patankar was not an exception to Fr. Biondi's leadership in the last few years; it has been the rule. I strongly urge the Board of Trustees to heed the recommendation of the students and faculty and secure President Biondi's resignation as soon as possible. I have no doubt that he did wonderful things for this university in the last two and a half decades. But in my time here, I have personally witnessed the destructive effects of his misguided leadership. If major changes are not made soon, I believe the quality of teaching will suffer, the school's national reputation will be irrevocably damaged, and SLU will continue to decline in the rankings. I urge to you to take action now before the situation gets worse. At the very least, I can guarantee that keeping Fr. Biondi will result in lots of faculty leaving; I am only among the first to go.

Very truly, Dr. Matthew Hall

And some of the trustee responses, with Hall's replies.

Matt,

I find almost nothing about your correspondence to ring true. As a Trustee I have deep connections to the university and my second daughter just graduated from SLU this last Friday.

The fact that you don't say "To be honest" until the beginning of your 6th paragraph is very telling. Does that admit your not otherwise?

I hope you find life easier in your new path.

Sincerely, [redacted] .......

[Hall's reply] Thank you very much for your response. I would truly appreciate a dialogue about my experience. I am curious, what exactly do you suspect I am lying about? I assure you, I was offered no counter-offer at all. If you want, I can ask the chair of my department and the Dean to confirm my experience. Or is there something else you doubt about my account? I would be happy to provide whatever evidence (emails, etc) that I can to verify my experiences.

I am glad your daughter had a good experience at SLU. Many of my students do as well due to our exceptional faculty and great staffers. But everything in my description is true, and I would be very happy to defend my specific statements with more evidence if you could identify what exactly you doubt.

Best, Matt

Another trustee:

Gee Matt---I went back and reviewed your emails to me this past week---in two of them you made it clear it was about the money--"my main concern is salary" and in another you said if we had "matched your offer" you would have stayed. You also wrote, when seeking more money, that "you really liked it here", and when that effort failed you still said you were "very sorry to be leaving." I also recall our meetings (they were always about money) and in none of them did you ever say a word about what a terrible place this University was---in fact, just the opposite as you consistently lobbied to be made a member of the law faculty (because it would have meant more money)---ironically that effort was largely rejected by the law faculty---you are not, after all, a lawyer--although your most recent note refects a struggle between blowing your own horn and tearing down this university and attacking Father Biondi---Good luck Matt; I hope you make a lot of money. .......

[Hall's reply] I'm sorry you seem to think I am contradicting myself, but I stand by everything I have said to you and in my letter. I do really like it here and I am very sorry to be leaving. As I said in my letter, I have lots of family and friends in the area, I love St. Louis, and I love both my colleagues and my students. The university is NOT a terrible place, because a university is far more than just the administration. Fr. Biondi and Dr. Patankar do not equal SLU. Only the administration is troubling. The faculty, students, staff, and surrounding community are great; that is why I asked for a counteroffer in the first place--so that I could consider staying.

You are correct that salary was my main concern as far as negotiating a counteroffer from SLU. (I couldn't ask them to resolve this crisis as part of my negotiation.) That is why it was so distressing that the university offered me absolutely nothing to stay. Had they done so I would have considered staying, though I'm not sure what I would have ultimately decided. I'm very sorry if it sounded like I was blowing my own horn in the letter. I certainly did not mean to do that. I included a paragraph outlining my accomplishments because I wanted to convince the Board that the university is losing a quality faculty member. I apologize if that sounded arrogant.

I'm not sure what you mean when you say the law faculty rejected my effort to get a joint appointment. Last year the law faculty approved my joint appointment and the Dean of the Law School approved my salary increase. My contract from the university now names me as a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Political Science and a non-tenure-track Assistant Professor of Law. The only part of my effort that was rejected was the salary, which Dr. Patankar decided, not the law school faculty.

I am very saddened by the confrontational tone in your email and in the only other response I have received from a Board member. In that response, the Board member suggested that I was lying in my letter. I responded by asking what he doubted about my account and offering to provide whatever evidence I could (emails, testimony from colleagues, etc.) I am yet to hear back from him. I would ask you and the Board to accept my account for what it is--admittedly just one perspective, but an honest story about my experience intended to promote the best interests of this institution. I do not intend to tear down the university; rather, I'm hoping that honest and polite dialogue will lead to improving this university.

Sincerely, Matt Hall

A third trustee:

At the Development Committee Meeting we were told by SGA officers that certain members of the Political Science Faculty were actually telling their students that they were looking for a job or seriously considering other opportunities. At that meeting I said that this was very unprofessional and I would like to repeat that. I suspect, Matt, that you were one of the faculty members that exhibited this entirely unprofessional behavior.

Good luck in your future academic endeavors and I hope that you reach a higher level of maturity in your next assignment.

Have a great Holiday Season!

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