Change agent, class clown or criminal?

Former U of L dean accused of throwing spitballs and belittling colleagues, not to mention mishandling federal grants

The University of Louisville posted a nationwide job search in 2003, looking to find a new dean to oversee the College of Education and Human Development. The man they found for the job: Robert Felner.

Given Felner would eventually become the subject of dozens of grievances during his tenure at Louisville — not to mention the target of a federal investigation — a few requirements listed in the job ad now seem more than a little ironic: a record of successful interaction with faculty, staff and students; strong interpersonal, organizational and communication skills, and the ability to work effectively with internal and external constituents; a high standard of professional integrity and a strong sense of professional ethics.

Photo courtesy of the University of Louisville: Former U of L Dean Robert Felner in happier days.

Photo courtesy of the University of Louisville: Former U of L Dean Robert Felner in happier days.

Since Felner’s departure earlier this summer, it has become increasingly clear that the dean’s tumultuous time at U of L was marred by complaints and possibly even criminal wrongdoing (federal prosecutors are investigating Felner for mishandling a $694,000 No Child Left Behind grant).

University e-mails and letters obtained through an open records request reveal Felner had a combative relationship with peers, possibly driving away numerous professors and harming professional relationships with other colleges in his five years at the school, during which time it appears the administration failed to act.

In a series of combative e-mails to Felner in 2005, Ric Keaster, then-associate dean at Western Kentucky University’s College of Education and Behavioral Sciences, characterizes an exchange between the two at an earlier meeting as a “verbal assault.” 

Other e-mails detail numerous charges leveled by U of L faculty, who accuse Felner of screaming at colleagues in public; reading the e-mails of faculty members, then bragging about it in public; and even throwing “spitballs” during state meetings.

A letter sent to U of L President James Ramsey by former college of education student Sara Yount — now the senior associate dean of admissions at Bellarmine University — expresses alarm over the departure of three professors, characterizing the exodus as “suspicious to me that all three would depart within one semester.”

In fact, numerous professors left the College of Education and Human Development during Felner’s tenure.

When former professor Ellen McIntyre — also a distinguished university scholar — notified Felner she was leaving for North Carolina State University, “he was giddy,” says one professor who asked not to be identified. “That was the actual word people used to describe his mood when he found out. … Ellen had been a vocal opponent and called him out frequently.” 

The professor went on to say Felner was “unprofessional in every aspect. … Students reported that he would wander outside the classrooms, occasionally peeking into the classroom and waving at the female doctoral students.”

While anonymous complaints are problematic — it is possible that numerous complaints could come from one disgruntled person, and sometimes are used for political purposes — the volume and variety of complaints against Felner suggest there were widespread concerns. Those complaints were reiterated when the faculty senate held a no-confidence vote against Felner.

Even before arriving at U of L, Felner’s record of academic administration was spotty at best, having been removed outright from one leadership position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and having had his departure from another leadership position at Auburn University met with relief.

Yet Ramsey and other administrators continue to defend their actions. In a recent letter to faculty and university trustees, Ramsey asserts that Felner’s “references were very good” (never mind the fact that Felner’s former boss in Illinois, Emanuel Donchin, says U of L never contacted him regarding their prospective new hire).

In the same letter, Ramsey goes on to defend the university’s failure to respond to the no-confidence vote, saying there were about 100 faculty members in the college of education at the time, and that only about half were at the meeting where the vote was taken. But another professor who spoke on the condition of anonymity says there were closer to 65 professors in attendance. 

In his letter, Ramsey again characterizes Felner as a “change agent,” suggesting the administration “believed that early concerns over the dean’s leadership style stemmed from the rapid change and heavy demands he had placed on his faculty.”

As time went on, though, Ramsey explains, “We realized there was an issue with the dean’s leadership/management style. While we can’t talk about personnel actions, we did take steps to improve the situation.”