History repeating?

Aug 13, 2008 at 10:51 am

As former U of L Dean Robert Felner faces the feds, colleagues and students shed light on his turbulent past

The e-mail’s subject line read “Justice at Last?”

The message relayed sordid details about the brewing scandal surrounding Robert Felner, the former University of Louisville dean under federal investigation for potentially mishandling hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant money.

When Paul Hutchinson — a student of Felner’s at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign two decades ago — opened the e-mail from an old college friend, the message linked to recent media coverage of the criminal investigation here in Louisville.

As Hutchinson read news of the saga, he wasn’t surprised by the allegations against Felner, whom he describes as problematic, neglectful and unprofessional. What was more shocking, he says, is that it took so many years for accusations of wrongdoing to surface.

Photo by Rick Redding: Solitary Fan: Robert Felner attends last Wednesday’s Bats game at Slugger Field, sitting solo behind home plate.
Photo by Rick Redding: Solitary Fan: Robert Felner attends last Wednesday’s Bats game at Slugger Field, sitting solo behind home plate.

“During his tenure the morale of the student body was going downhill fast,” Hutchinson says of Felner’s time in Illinois, where he served as director of clinical training. “His tenure in that role was widely seen as very problematic.”

The controversial figure ultimately was ousted from his leadership role 20 years ago: “All of a sudden, seemingly without warning, Robert Felner was being removed from his post, and there wasn’t any official explanation for why that step was being taken.”

In reading of the escalating scandal in Louisville, Hutchinson stumbled upon dozens of grievances filed by U of L faculty, staff, students and alumni — which were listed in their entirety on the blog www.PageOneKentucky.com — charging Felner with a laundry list of inappropriate behavior ranging from sexual harassment to fostering a hostile work environment.

For Hutchinson, it was déjà vu.

“I remember reading that list of grievances … and being struck by how familiar the complaints were. It sounded quite in keeping with the Bob Felner that I knew,” says Hutchinson, now a psychologist in Bellevue, Wash. While earning a master’s degree in Illinois, Hutchinson says Felner served as his faculty advisor. Although the former student does not recall any rumors of financial malfeasance, he says Felner’s tenure at the university was marred by an array of other criticisms. “It’s amazing that it took so long to catch up with him,” he says.

By the time the criminal investigation became public in late June, Felner had already announced his resignation as the dean of U of L’s College of Education and Human Development, having accepted a job as chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. But as a result of the allegations, Felner — a licensed psychologist and longtime academic administrator — resigned from the new position before his tenure there even began, and he remains in Louisville as the investigation unfolds. Rather than keeping a low profile, the 58-year-old Felner continues popping up around town, frequently attending Bats games at Slugger Field, where he sits solo behind home plate, sipping beer and appearing remarkably unfazed for someone who is the target of a federal investigation.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Louisville began investigating Felner several months ago in response to suspicions regarding his handling of a $694,000 No Child Left Behind grant. The federal grant was supposed to be used to administer education surveys, work that apparently was never accomplished. 

Photo from University of Louisville: Former U of L Dean Robert Felner mixing it up at a past UofL function.
Photo from University of Louisville: Former U of L Dean Robert Felner mixing it up at a past UofL function.

Instead, at least $450,000 of the grant money was funneled to a defunct nonprofit group in Illinois headed by a longtime friend and associate of Felner.

In the months before the criminal probe became public, Felner clearly feared that his job was in jeopardy, and e-mail correspondence suggests he was furiously trying to gather paperwork proving the legitimacy of the Illinois education organization where much of the grant money landed.

“I am already needing to relentlessly look for another job as this one I have been told is probably not long,” Felner wrote in an April e-mail to longtime friend Thomas Schroeder, the director of the National Center on Education and Prevention in Port Byron, Ill., alleged recipient of a large chunk of the grant.

In a follow-up e-mail, Felner wrote: “Situation is getting real dicey. I could lose my house and you too.” In some of the messages, Felner addressed Schroeder as “honey,” sometimes closing the correspondence with the word “hugs,” adding a bizarre twist to the scandal. In addition to being the subject of a criminal investigation, Felner also is in the midst of a divorce from his wife, who resides in Rhode Island in one of the couple’s four luxurious homes.

“We are in the first phase of investigation. We’re going to wrap up this initial phase of investigation in four to six weeks,” says David Huber, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Kentucky. “There are other threads of this issue that are being investigated as well, and these other threads will continue to be investigated.”

When asked if the investigation is focusing primarily on the alleged mishandling of $450,000, or if additional money is in question, Huber simply repeats his statement that “other threads of this issue” are being looked into as well.

The university notified the U.S. attorney’s office about potential wrongdoing by Felner, and the administration is cooperating in the investigation, according to Huber. Although he declines to provide specific details — including when the
suspicious activity was brought to his attention — Huber says it was the University of Louisville Police and the school’s general counsel that ultimately relayed the information to federal prosecutors.

An open records request to the university for communication between campus police and the U.S. attorney’s office was rejected under the ongoing-investigation proviso of Kentucky’s open records law.

So far, federal agents have seized paperwork and computers from Felner’s U of L office, as well as boxes that had been sent to his next job at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in Kenosha, Wisc. Federal investigators also have visited the University of Rhode Island’s South Kingstown campus at least twice in recent months. 

In response to the investigation, U of L has announced plans to review its policies for overseeing federal funds. But some critics say the measure is too little, too late, suggesting the college should have addressed the corrosive and hostile environment during Felner’s reign as dean long ago. Maybe then, any wrongdoing would have been uncovered much sooner.

“My real beef is with the administration and how they have handled all of this,” says one university staffer who knows Felner and asked not to be named. “I do think there were serious issues going on, but I also think there are serious issues with the stifling of voices by upper administration … for me, that’s the real issue.”

Acknowledging that Felner at the very least made some bad judgments, the staffer went on to say: “I do think Robert was a jerk … but what I have more concern about is that there are a lot of things that happen in the university that aren’t handled in a very good way.”

Another U of L employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity says staffers still are reluctant to talk about Felner for fear of recrimination, suggesting the former dean and his “clique” at the university had a history of waging “fear tactics” against anyone who made waves.

For example, when two graduate students complained to Felner about repeatedly changing their assignments, he allegedly threatened not to renew their contracts at the school. “That’s the kind of thing that happened if people stepped out of line. And it went from full professors all the way down to students,” says the professor, who teaches in the college of education. “The one term that was used over and over again was ‘irrational.’ If you tried to make sense of it you’d drive yourself crazy because it just didn’t make any sense.”

Almost from the beginning of his tenure at U of L in 2003, Felner has been a controversial figure on the campus, and in 2006 he was the subject of a no-confidence vote called by the faculty senate. 

The no-confidence vote, which passed 27-24 (with two abstentions), accused Felner of an array of unethical behavior, including publicly humiliating faculty, unfair hiring practices and workplace harassment. One anonymous grievance accused Felner of being “a cruel man who enjoys ridiculing others, depriving those he doesn’t like of resources,” adding that the dean liked to “taunt people about how nothing came of any of our complaints.” Another stated, “We have a mentally ill man in charge, and the university has pretty much told us that we can continue to suffer under his leadership.”

University records show that the college hired a mediation firm to look into the matter, but the results apparently were never shared with the faculty.

In fact, it seems the matter simply fizzled out, and the former professor who called for the no-confidence vote says he was never even contacted by the mediation firm during its investigation.

In addition to calling for the no-confidence vote, Pedro Portes, now a professor at the University of Georgia, says he also sent an e-mail to Shirley Willihnganz, university provost, and James Ramsey, president, alluding to the possible mishandling of federal grant money in the college of education. Portes sent the letter — which did not specifically mention Felner — prior to his departure in 2006, and he believes his warning was ignored.

University officials have repeatedly praised Felner for his accomplishments over the years, essentially dismissing the numerous grievances against him as growing pains, a natural part of institutional change.

But U of L spokesman John Drees says this support has been only “of the college,” and he declines to comment further, saying he cannot discuss personnel matters.

As droves of former colleagues continue to come forward with criticism of Felner’s past work at various institutions, some wonder how the University of Louisville could have hired him in the first place. Not only did U of L officials fail to uncover (or simply disregarded) his stormy professional past, they did not heed the many warnings and complaints from faculty, dismissing the more than 30 grievances filed against him over the years. Continuing to downplay such grievances, U of L’s president just recently referred publicly to the bulk of those complaints as “anonymous crap.”

In the midst of criticism at a different institution 20 years ago, Felner was suddenly, and without official explanation, removed from his post as director of clinical training in the psychology department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After receiving a host of complaints about the director, Emanuel Donchin, then head of psychology at the university in Illinois, booted Felner from the position.

In a recent phone interview from his home in Tampa, Fla., Donchin says he’s surprised no one — either at the University of Louisville, or at the University of Rhode Island, Felner’s previous place of employment — ever bothered to ask about Felner before hiring him.

“Over the 20 years since he left … nobody has ever asked me a question about Felner until today,” Donchin says.

Faculty members reached at the University of Rhode Island were unwilling to comment on Felner’s tenure at the school.

But former colleagues and students of Felner in Illinois were more than willing to talk about his stormy leadership, which came to an abrupt end.

Donchin, now a professor and department chair at the University of South Florida, says Felner was relieved of his duties as director largely because of his “personal style.” Although Felner briefly worked with another department on campus, he continued to be affiliated with the psychology department. But his ties with the psychology department ended when his “irresponsibility with respect to managing” one of his grant projects came to light, says Donchin.

Despite such complaints, Donchin reiterates his belief that Felner did nothing illegal while at the University of Illinois.

“All he was guilty of was irresponsibility and being a mean and unpleasant person. … there was nothing criminal or reprehensible,” Donchin says. “We were very pleased that he left us. … He was really an unpleasant character, but that’s basically the story.”

Interestingly, Donchin says he received an angry, anonymous letter after Felner took over as dean of education at the University of Louisville. The letter essentially asked how Donchin and the psychology faculty at the University of Illinois in Urbana could have kept quiet and covered for Felner for so long.

“Nobody — no search committees, no deans, no provosts, no faculty members, nobody — has ever asked us for our views on Felner,” he says. “We weren’t quiet or anything like that, we just were never asked.”