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Maybe it's a symptom of my alma mater's Catholic roots, or the thinner air atop the Bluff. But Duquesne University isn't widely known for its politically engaged student body. I spent four years there, three of them working for the student newspaper, and can recall just one campus demonstration the whole time: a rally to decry President Charles Dougherty's decision in 2006 to deny a popular professor tenure.

But two years later, students were marching again.

Dougherty removed law-school Dean Don Guter on Dec. 10, sparking outrage on campus. And on Jan. 21, nearly 200 students and faculty members protested in front of the administration building, demanding an explanation for why Guter had been ousted from his post.

Much of the media coverage, and the Duquesne administration itself, have painted the controversy as being confined to the law school. But the controversy is broader, and deeper, than that.

"Save The Business School -- Downsize Dougherty," one protester's sign read. "Save The Liberal Arts School -- Enlighten Dougherty," read another.

"All of the schools have problems with [Dougherty]," explained Edward Duvall, a third-year law student attending the protest. "It's bigger than the law school. [Guter's removal] was the straw that broke the camel's back."

More than once, Dougherty has made decisions about deans that either ignored or circumvented input from faculty search committees. No one questions that Dougherty has the power to take such steps, and some on campus support the moves. Guter was not universally popular among his colleagues, and Dougherty's supporters say the university is stronger today than it was when he took over.

But many on campus worry that the decision to remove Guter is emblematic of a campus where academic freedom is at risk, and collegiality is disappearing. Instructors admit being wary of speaking on the record, meanwhile, partly because Duquesne's policies can make it risky for anyone -- from board members to adjunct professors -- to be critical.

Meanwhile, Guter is not the first dean Dougherty has ousted for murky reasons -- and he may not be the last.

"We learn a lot about justice and procedure in class," Duvall says. "To be led by someone who rules in such an authoritarian manner spits in the face of everything we're learning."

Dougherty became Duquesne's 12th president in 2001, following a six-year stint as academic vice president at Nebraska's Creighton University. And Duquesne seems pleased with his performance: Not long before he decided to remove Guter, Dougherty's own contract was extended through 2016.

You can see some of the reasons just by walking across campus. Under Dougherty, the school has renovated old facilities on its Uptown campus, and replaced campus eyesores with green space. Perhaps most visibly, Duquesne replaced a block of Forbes Avenue with the Power Center -- a 130,000-square-foot state-of-the-art recreation center.

Duquesne's image has been enhanced outside campus too. In 2008, U.S. News & World Report recognized it as a "top-tier" university for the first time. Out of 1,400 schools surveyed, U.S. News ranked Duquesne at 130.

But in academic offices and hallways, there were mutterings of dissent. Sometimes they were barely audible amidst the sounds of construction, but as an undergraduate member of the university's student newspaper, The Duquesne Duke, I began to hear them more often.

In September 2005, the administration released a memo to faculty, outlining a new policy for fielding calls from reporters. As The Duke reported, faculty were not to directly respond to queries that "could impact the university's image." When reporters asked about topics "relating to the administration or personnel issues," the memo said, faculty were to direct reporters to the public-affairs office instead.

Students rally in front of Duquesne's administration building to protest the recent actions of President Charles Dougherty. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MATT NOONAN/THE DUQUESNE DUKE
  • Photo courtesy of Matt Noonan/The Duquesne Duke
  • Students rally in front of Duquesne's administration building to protest the recent actions of President Charles Dougherty.

The memo sparked an uproar, stoking fears Duquesne was curtailing free speech. The university's spokesperson, Bridget Fare, said that the policy was badly worded. "I can see why [professors] have concerns," she told The Duke, adding that the memo was simply meant to help direct reporters to the best source. "[T]here is no intent to curb [faculty members'] freedom of expression," she said.

But Duke staffers often had reason to think of the memo after five Duquesne basketball players were shot following an on-campus dance in 2006. For months afterward, professors redirected almost every interview request we made -- including queries completely unrelated to the crime -- to public affairs.

"There were times when professors were genuinely nervous," recalls Bethany Chambers, The Duke's former managing editor. "They definitely had a concern that they would be called out for speaking."

"Duquesne is still wearing its public relations mask," wrote The Duke's news editor in an October 2006 column. "What top-secret information lurks about in the Administration building?"

It may have been something like the story of Jim Stalder.

In 2000, Stalder left his job at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, where he worked as a managing partner in the company's Pittsburgh office, to become Duquesne's business-school dean. Stalder received yearly evaluations from the provost, Dr. Ralph Pearson, and "My performance ratings ... were all outstanding," Stalder says.

During his fourth year as dean, Stalder underwent a more extensive review to see whether he should be reappointed. The review, a standard university practice, involves evaluation by a seven-member committee, consisting primarily of tenured professors appointed by the faculty and the president.

Pearson's March 2004 evaluation gave Stalder little reason for worry. The evaluation, which City Paper obtained, ranked Stalder in 11 categories, ranging from "Motivation and Initiative" to "Human Relations/Supervisory Skills." In six of those categories, he obtained the highest mark, "Substantially Exceeds Expectations." In no category did he score lower than "Meets Expectations."

The review committee, meanwhile, unanimously supported Stalder's reappointment.

Dougherty decided not to renew Stalder's contract anyway. "He said the faculty didn't support me," recalls Stalder.

"I was absolutely shocked," he adds. "I was told by the provost that I was doing an outstanding job."

The chair of Stalder's review committee, Dr. David Pentico, also seemed stunned. In a Sept. 1, 2004 letter to Duquesne's board of directors, Pentico noted that Duquesne officials told the Chronicle of Higher Education that Stalder's contract was not renewed "[b]ased on that [committee] review."

That was news to the review committee, wrote Pentico, a professor of management science: "The members of the committee all believe that the report's general tenor is positive." In fact, "70 percent of the faculty and staff who responded to the survey agreed that Dean Stalder should be reappointed."

According to the letter, Dougherty refused to discuss the issue because it was a confidential personnel matter.

"[T]his is a university, not a corporation," wrote Pentico, who could not be reached for comment. "President Dougherty's refusal [to meet] speaks volumes to me about his view of the ... appropriate way to deal with members of the university community."

Even Dougherty's predecessor, Dr. John Murray, seemed confused. "I don't know what happened here," Murray, who is now Duquesne's chancellor, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in June 2004. "The only person who could possibly tell you about that is the president."

Dougherty did not speak at the time, though, and he rarely speaks to reporters. Neither Dougherty nor provost Pearson would comment for this story. Contacted by CP, Duquesne spokesperson Bridget Fare reiterated that Stalder's removal is a confidential matter. She does say, however, that "The clearest evidence that the change [in deans] was the right thing to do is the progress the business school has made" since then.

According to Fare, the number of business-school donors has increased by 81 percent since Stalder's departure. And she notes the business school has been ranked as one of The Princeton Review's "Best 296 Business Schools," for three years running.

In any case, Stalder left Duquesne quietly, with no intention of going public with his story. But that was before he saw it happening all over again. When Guter was removed, Stalder penned a Jan. 23 letter to the Post-Gazette. Initially, he'd stayed quiet "to protect the university," Stalder wrote. But Dougherty's action could "damag[e] Donald Guter's reputation and that of the law school," he added, and "doing nothing is no longer an option."

By then, the controversy was already well underway. Dougherty removed Guter on Dec. 10, just before finals commenced. But the response was immediate. The very next day, Duquesne's student governing body, the Student Government Association, voted 21-13 in favor of a "no confidence" resolution against Dougherty.

"The dean's removal was an injustice," says Vanessa Browne-Barbour, who resigned as the law school's associate dean in protest. (She is still a professor at the school.) "It's destructive to the university."

Duquesne's former law-school dean Don Guter - RENEE ROSENSTEEL

Guter, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral who remains a tenured professor at Duquesne, could point to accomplishments of his own. According to the Allegheny County Bar Association, Duquesne's law-school bar-exam pass rates rose during each of Guter's three years as dean, from a 68 percent pass rate in 2005 to 97 percent in 2008. In addition, the U.S. News and World Report ranked the law school 30th out of 200 law schools in "Research and Writing."

"Guter had been making large strides at the law school," says Adam Krynicki, a second-year law student who was among the nearly 200 on hand at the Jan. 21 protest. "When they fired Guter, [the administration] wasn't thinking about the students."

"Guter had been doing such a good job," agrees Kelly Goodrich, another second-year law student.

What prompted the move? In a letter to law faculty, Dougherty wrote that Guter "could not and would not accept" his role "as a part of the University's administrative team" and that he did not "effectively manage the school."

Guter suspects the trouble began in 2006, when Dougherty denied law professor John Rago tenure, even though the faculty and Guter had recommended he get it. The president gave no explanation.

A grievance committee composed of faculty from across the university voted unanimously in favor of a resolution urging Dougherty to reverse his decision. Students demonstrated in support of Rago as well. Eventually, in the spring of 2007, Dougherty did grant Rago tenure. But Guter says Dougherty never forgave him for voicing his dissent.

"He got very upset about that," says Guter.

In fact, in a 2006 evaluation of Guter, provost Pearson wrote "[I]t is not acceptable that ... an officer of the university air publicly strong disagreement with the president's decision."

Some law school faculty support Dougherty's decision to remove Guter.

Guter's removal "was not unjust at all," says Duquesne law professor Bob Barker. "It was long overdue."

Barker says the law school has been run by a "fiefdom" of a half-dozen professors, who he claims ruled by fear and intimidation. "Guter was in the pocket of that crowd," he says.

Barker says Guter's interim replacement, Ken Gormley, is a welcome change. "His attitude is, 'We should become the best law school we can be,' not, 'I am here to run the school for my own aggrandizement.'"

Gormley says he's trying to distance himself from the squabbles.

"From the start I've tried not to be a part of the debate over whether [Guter's removal] was right or wrong," he says. "My sole focus has been to try to stabilize things and focus on moving forward."

Still, if the law school was divided before, it seems to be even more so now. On Feb. 11, the law-school faculty held a "no confidence" vote on President Dougherty: Of its 34 full-time faculty members, 14 voted in favor of the motion, while 15 supported Dougherty (There were also four abstentions and one non-vote.) Passage of the resolution required 18 favorable votes.

In a statement to the faculty after the vote, Dougherty wrote, "I interpret this vote as an expression of your desire to move past this unfortunate moment to a better future for the school."

Or not.

"This [law school] is a hornet's nest of treachery," argues adjunct law professor David Millstein, a strong supporter of Guter. In a letter to the law-school faculty after the vote, Millstein faulted the "lack of character ... integrity ... backbone and ... resolve" which he said the school's faculty had "demonstrated in its unwillingness to go toe to toe with tyranny."

"If anything, the tension has risen" since Guter's removal, says Colin Morgan, the vice president of the Student Bar Association (SBA). "I don't think relations [between faculty members] have improved at all."

When Stalder was removed, Dougherty overruled the judgment of a review committee. In Guter's case, the committee was not even fully formed. That's one of the things that bothers law professor Kellen McClendon most.

Dougherty has the power to remove deans if he wishes. But Duquesne's faculty handbook, which spells out the terms of employment for instructors, makes clear that faculty wishes should be taken into consideration. When deciding whether to reappoint a dean, it says, the school will "solicit the opinions of the full-time faculty of the school or college, and from other administrators and students." According to the handbook, that feedback "shall be considered by the President." But no such process took place where Guter was concerned.

During the fall semester, McClendon says the law school started the process of creating a committee to review Guter's performance. The faculty, he says, chose four members and the dean selected two, McClendon being one of them. In order to initiate the process, however, McClendon says the provost had to appoint someone to the committee. But, he says, Guter was removed before that ever happened.

"My rights as a member of the committee and as a member of the faculty were violated," McClendon says. "I did not have the opportunity to participate in the governance of the law school."

Duquesne's Power Center, located on Forbes Avenue - RENEE ROSENSTEEL

Dougherty didn't reach out much after making the decision, either. He did meet with student government leaders and the SBA, but with little effect. Morgan says Dougherty started the meeting on the wrong foot by reading from a prepared script. "His explanation was that it was in his power [to remove Guter], so he did it."

Such assertiveness doesn't surprise some of Dougherty's former colleagues back at Nebraska's Creighton University.

"[Dougherty] is a very hands-on administrator," says Creighton chemistry professor Holly Harris. "He's not a very good delegator."

"He's definitely somebody who has high standards," says Pat Borchers, a former law-school dean who now holds Dougherty's old job as Creighton's VP of academic affairs. Borchers says Dougherty wasn't necessarily difficult to work with, but, "The fact that he's been willing to move out people who weren't on the same page with him doesn't surprise me at all."

And because of Duquesne's unusual power structure, it's not clear whether anyone can stop him.

Duquesne was founded in 1878 by a Roman Catholic order of priests and brothers -- known as the Holy Ghost Fathers, or the Spiritans. The Spiritans still own the school, which has a governing structure unlike most universities.

Most schools are run by a board of directors. Duquesne, by contrast, has a two-tiered system. Its 20-member board votes on major decisions, but a board of six Spiritans -- known as the Corporation Members -- have final say over any move the university makes. The members are appointed by members of the spiritual order itself.

Dr. Joseph Rishel learned just how much authority they have while researching his history of Duquesne, "The Spirit That Gives Life": The History of Duquesne University, 1878-1996.

"If the Corporation wanted to," Rishel remembers asking a former Duquesne administrator, "they could turn this place into a bubble-gum factory?"

"Yes," was the answer.

The Corporation can reverse board decisions, acknowledges Father John Sawicki, a Corporation Member (and a poli-sci professor at the school). But, "You really shouldn't meddle in [the board's] process." The powers to do so "are not unlike nuclear powers. ... If you have to [use them], it's not a good scene."

Sawicki says the Corporation "is in full support of the president," so even if the board opposed Dougherty, it's not clear it would matter. In any event, the board doesn't oppose him at all.

"The board fully backs the president," says Mary Grealy, who has been on the board for two years. "I've been upset at the personal attacks on [Dougherty]. ... It's not fair."

"I'm more than 100 percent behind him," agrees Ted Senko, another two-year board veteran.

Which is just as well. According to the university's bylaws, board members "are subject to removal, with or without cause," by Corporation Members. And in early 2005, after Stalder's departure from the business school, the bylaws were changed to give the board chair -- currently P. David Pappert -- similar power to remove members at will.

Since 2005, in fact, the board has undergone significant turnover. Of the 29 people on Duquesne's board that year, only 11 remain. At least one board member stepped down because he objected to the new rules -- and even he would only speak on condition of anonymity. "If you want a board of ratifiers, get some stooges," he told City Paper.

So much turnover "is definitely troublesome," says Darryll Jones, an expert in nonprofit management and a former associate dean at the University of Pittsburgh law school. "You want stability on a nonprofit board because it allows for long-range planning. ... I would be worried if I were a stakeholder."

Allowing a board chair to remove board members at will is also potentially "unhealthy," says Jones, who now teaches at Florida's Stetson University. "It's not so odd with regard to religious institutions, since religious institutions usually grant one person a whole lot of power." But even so, he says, "Each board member has a legal obligation ... to exercise independent and informed judgments. If [board members] go along just to get along, knowing certain judgments aren't in the institution's best interest, they can be held liable."

Some former board members say nothing prevented them from doing due diligence. "I was extremely outspoken," says Cynthia Baldwin, a Pittsburgh lawyer who served on the board for nine years until leaving in 2006.

"[The board members] aren't wilting lilies," agrees lawyer Edward O'Connor, a 12-year veteran who left the board about two years ago. "They wouldn't let anyone dictate them."

In any case, this isn't the first time that Duquesne's board has stood foursquare behind a controversial president. According to Rishel's history of Duquesne, during the 1980s, the term of President Donald Nesti inspired complaints similar to those echoing on campus today.

According to Spirit, Father Nesti felt that the faculty had too much say in running the school. In 1984, Nesti dismissed a popular dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Teachers "were outraged," writes Rishel. "Nesti's governing strategies, which some described as 'autocratic,' threw much of the campus into turmoil." Popular administrators quit or were dismissed, and increasingly there was an on-campus "atmosphere of discontent and mistrust."

Despite widespread calls for Nesti's resignation, though, the board of directors "gave the administration another vote of confidence," Rishel writes. Members of the Corporation became "increasingly alarmed," but before they could do anything, they were ousted by Rev. Norman Bevan, one of the Spiritans in charge of appointing Corporation members.

Nesti eventually resigned amid the controversy. Even so, Rishel writes, "Much speculation has been made concerning the relative importance of the president and the board in the governance of Duquesne University."

Such questions have become more pressing, even as Sawicki says controversy surrounding dean appointments "isn't unusual."

According to Dr. John Baker, the University of Pittsburgh's faculty-senate president, a dean's role is inherently conflicted. On the one hand, he says, deans are administrators who "serve at the pleasure" of the president. But on the other hand, "They are also the spokesperson for their faculty.

"It is a complicated role," Baker says.

As it turns out, Duquesne could be seeing more complications in the future -- this time at the university's college of liberal arts.

The previous dean of the liberal arts college, Francesco Cesareo, left Duquesne in 2007 for a post elsewhere. An English professor, Al Labriola, has served as acting dean while the school began a search process. By many accounts, he's done an excellent job.

"Dr. Labriola has a very strong following amongst the student body," says Eric Mathews, a senior in the liberal-arts school.

Perhaps most notably, Labriola helped construct a new, state-of-the-art digital media center. And when the search committee submitted the names of three potential dean candidates, Labriola was among them.

Labriola, like Stalder before him, says provost Pearson was encouraging about his prospects. Pearson, he says, told him "I was the best acting dean he had ever worked with."

But two months later, Labriola found out that Dougherty had rejected him -- along with the other two candidates the search committee recommended. The school has since started another search from scratch.

"I was very much surprised," Labriola says. "I had no inkling [Dougherty] was dissatisfied with my performance." And "The faculty led me to believe that there was widespread support for my candidacy."

After telling the acting dean that the first search had been scrapped last April, Labriola says Dougherty told him, "You don't bring the right chemistry to my administrative leadership team."

"Don't ask me what that means," he says. "It may mean that we have a personality conflict, it may mean that he doesn't like my style of leadership."

"[Labriola] has been given unfair treatment by the administration," says Mathews, who joined the January campus protest in support of his acting dean. "He's been kicked around."

Labriola says he reapplied for the second dean search, which is currently underway, but he was told by the administration that he could not be considered since the new search must yield three new candidates.

If the second search fails, the university's faculty handbook allows Dougherty to choose anyone he wants, regardless of whether the faculty committee approved.

If he does so, there could be more outrage on campus -- and more fears about expressing it. Professors contacted by City Paper were wary of even praising their colleague on the record -- for fear, they said, of reprisal.

"Labriola is the best thing to ever happen to the liberal-arts school," said one professor in the school.

"Labriola is an independent-spirited guy," surmises another. "[Dougherty] wants someone in there who is malleable."

In theory, professors should be able to talk freely about such concerns. One reason instructors are granted tenure, in fact, is so they can speak their minds without fear of reprisal.

But at Duquesne, professors have reason to be wary. Under a section titled "Termination of Tenure," the faculty handbook warns that faculty members' tenure can be forfeited for "insubordination."

According to Robert Kreiser, a program officer of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the clause is "contradictory to the principles of academic freedom." Punishing insubordination "is common in a military or corporate setting, but not in an academic setting."

The insubordination clause is easy to overlook -- it's tucked into a footnote along with other reasons for firing, including discrimination and failure to meet standards of teaching and research. And judging from archived editions of the handbook, "insubordination" has been a firing offense since 1994, during the presidency of Dr. John Murray, the current chancellor. (Murray declined to be interviewed for this story.)

But as controversy over Dougherty has mounted, faculty members have become increasingly concerned about the provision. According to a Jan. 29 e-mail obtained by CP, the faculty senate's executive committee recently unanimously passed a resolution urging the "insubordination" clause be removed.

"This passage threatens academic freedom and the tenure process," states the resolution, which the e-mail says will soon be voted on by the full faculty Senate.

Will the clause be taken out?

"It would be premature to speculate on any possible changes," Fare said in an e-mail.

But in Charles Dougherty's Duquesne, speculating about changes is all some critics say they can do. Even as he builds a sparkling campus, they fear, there's nothing to stop him from undermining its academic principles.

"What does it say about the university when you have tenured professors who are afraid to talk?" asks Vanessa Browne-Barbour, the former associate dean who resigned in protest.

"Why does fear have a place in a Catholic institution?"

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