Felner’s follies – Former U of L dean Robert Felner racked up grievances, not grants

When Robert Felner arrived at the University of Louisville in 2003, he brought with him a reputation as a “rainmaker.” University administrators praised the former dean as a change agent, citing him as the driving force behind a spike in grant money at the school.

In fact, even after federal prosecutors began investigating Felner for possibly mishandling hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money, university president James Ramsey repeatedly reminded critics that under the former dean’s leadership, the College of Education and Human Development saw “an increase in grants and contracts from $4.2 million … to more than $40 million.”

But a recent review of public records obtained by LEO Weekly reveals Felner is directly responsible for only a fraction of that windfall.

It appears Felner was only personally involved — as either director or co-director of specific grant proposals  — in bringing in about $1 million in total grants during his tenure, according to documents the university turned over in response to an open records request. That total includes a $694,400 No Child Left Behind grant the feds are now investigating. Most of that grant was funneled to a defunct nonprofit headed by a longtime friend and former associate of Felner. 

During Felner’s five-year tenure, the largest grant awarded to the college of education was a highly praised $20.5 million federal grant, which it appears the former dean had little or nothing to do with obtaining. The U.S. Department of Education gave U of L the record grant to open the National Research Center on Career and Technical Education, previously headed by James R. Stone III at the University of Minnesota. After relocating to Louisville, Stone saw to it that the research center also moved and that the necessary funding was made available. 

One faculty member with U of L’s College of Education and Human Development says Felner not only failed to bring in big bucks, but that he “was not doing any research with any of our faculty.” Instead, the professor — speaking on the condition of anonymity — says that Felner was “continuing to present research with his Rhode Island cohort.”

From 1996 to 2003, Felner worked at the University of Rhode Island, where he reportedly maintained ties after moving to Louisville. 

While the university experienced a marked increase in grants during Felner’s employment (although his role in securing those grants is debatable), grievances and complaints about Felner also flooded in from students, faculty and staff. The complaints were consistent in that they alleged unsavory behavior, ranging from sexual harassment to workplace intimidation.

The onslaught of grievances prompted outraged faculty members to call for a no-confidence vote in March 2006, a measure some hoped would result in Felner’s dismissal. And although the faculty senate passed a no-confidence vote 27-24, Felner was not fired, and there’s no evidence he was even reprimanded.

Instead, the university hired a mediation firm, Just Solutions, to handle the matter. (The university, by the way, still owed the firm nearly $10,000 for its work related to Felner as of press deadline.) Because Just Solutions never produced an actual report for the university, the outcome of the mediation is unclear. Declining to go into specifics, executive director Janet Jernigan says her firm would have tried to help faculty and staff work together to solve their problems. In this case, it’s clear those problems revolved around Felner.

“We were brought in to assist a group in looking at how they were working together and to help them seek some solutions themselves,” Jernigan says. “We’re not decision makers. We were there really facilitating this process to help them come up with solutions.”

Confidentiality agreements prevent Jernigan from discussing the nature of the conversations with U of L employees.

“We asked for a representative selection of staff,” says Jernigan, explaining that her firm spoke with professors and staffers recommended by the university, and then branched out to elicit input from a wide range of individuals. “We wanted to feel like we had talked to folks within each of the different divisions.” 

Initial conversations between Just Solutions and university provost Shirley Willihnganz took place in May and June of 2006, and the firm conducted staff interviews in September and October of that year.

Several attempts to speak with Willihnganz — to find out what changes, if any, were made as a result of the Just Solutions meetings — were unsuccessful. Late last week, she did release this cryptic (and somewhat confusing) statement: “Much as we might like to, we haven’t issued statements about why we decided not to go forward with Just Solutions. Because this would involve discussion of personnel and mediation matters, we cannot discuss it. However, just because we can’t talk openly about it doesn’t mean we did nothing.”