Learning Curveball – U of L dean leaves under federal investigation

[email protected]

Monday was Robert Felner’s official last day as dean of the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Louisville. Having held the position since 2003, he left under the dark cloud of a federal investigation, one about which scant details have since emerged. We know this much for sure: On June 20, armed federal agents raided Felner’s office, removing reams of documents, some computers, and eventually Felner himself. 

The raid was part of an investigation concerning Felner’s possible mishandling of a $500,000 federal No Child Left Behind grant. The office of U.S. Attorney Joe Huber, also part of the investigation, is sticking to its no-comment policy on pending investigations, but Huber offered a statement last week that confirmed an ongoing criminal investigation by his office and federal law enforcement agencies, initiated by a tip-off from U of L officials. He offered the rare public statement citing the fact that the case deals with “a public institution of higher learning,” and requires sensitivity to “a different community need when the investigation enters a more public stage and is naturally discovered as a result of certain events.” 

Such sensitivity to a certain level of openness calls into question how Felner was able to continue in his position after education faculty cast a vote of “no confidence” in his leadership in 2006. That vote was first reported by the website PageOneKentucky.com, after WHAS11-TV broke the story with footage of the raid. The minutes of the 2006 meeting reveal a secret-ballot vote split nearly down the middle among the 53 people present, with two abstaining votes. The minutes also show two faculty members’ allegations against Felner of harassment, unfair hiring practices, extreme inequity of pay, retaliation against those who voiced dissenting opinions, and other complaints. 

Yet remarks of others, including Felner himself, indicate that the grievances were the result dissatisfaction with his style more than his performance. They stress the importance of unity at a time when the department was trying to draw new faculty and doctoral students, and note how poorly a no-confidence vote would reflect on the department. The overall picture is that of a department in the midst of difficult times, without a consensus about where exactly to lay the blame.

“People are depressed, so am I,” Felner said, according to the minutes. “There is a tradition of personal attacks on each other and the dean; we are supposed to be civil and stay on issues.” Yet, if the final vote is any indication, more than a few people in the room believed the blame belonged on Felner’s shoulders. 

Faculty and administrators who were present during the vote either could not be reached or declined to comment on the meeting or the investigation. One administrator said only that he would rather focus on bringing in a new dean to the department. U of L spokesperson Cynthia Hess said the school is cooperating with law enforcement authorities, who have asked that school officials make no public comments that might effect the ongoing investigation. 

Felner came to U of L in 2003 from the University of Rhode Island, where he headed the School of Education. Felner’s attorney, Scott Cox, said Monday that as far as he knows, the current investigation pertains only to grants the professor administered while in Louisville. The news, however, prompted the University of Rhode Island to look into grants Felner handled during his time there as well. In his curriculum vitae, Felner lists more than $44 million in grants and contracts he has apparently helped procure for various programs and institutions since the late 1970s. 

The U of L website lists Felner’s previous faculty appointments at Yale University, Auburn University and the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. He was expected to begin a position as chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside until last week, when he reportedly alerted the Wisconsin school about the investigation. By the end of the week, Felner had resigned from his new position, and the school has already begun a search for a new dean. 

Former Oldham County Schools Superintendent Blake Haselton was already set to serve as Felner’s interim replacement starting Tuesday, but the situation remains anything but clear nearly two weeks after television cameras captured Felner and his federal escorts leaving the education building. U of L has yet to publicly address the no-confidence vote, or what appears to be a subsequent lack of action. Moreover, PageOneKentucky.com reported Monday evening that some of the same staff and policy conflicts presented a problem for Felner 20 years ago at Champaign-Urbana. In that case, he was asked to step down from his position as head of a program, but remained with the school until 1997.