Chancellor Walter Wendler strides through the corridors of Anthony Hall with quick, hard, size 14 steps. He moves fast. No one in the offices he passes can ignore that he is there because most of the time SIUC’s top administrator is knocking on the walls.

By Gus Bode

Wendler makes his presence felt, whether walking down the hall or running a meeting. He has an in-your-face, change-is-necessary, debate-must-come-to-an-end, no-holds-barred management style.

Susan Ferry, executive assistant to the chancellor, shares a door with Wendler’s office. Ferry says she admires the chancellor’s intensity. Wendler cuts through her office a lot in one day. If it isn’t a question about a meeting, it’s to tell Ferry about a new policy on which she should start working.

“You know when he’s coming because you can hear his footsteps on the stairs,” Ferry said. “It’s a characteristic of leaders and typical of people who have great ideas.”

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For all of his deliberateness and management style, the 55-year-old chancellor has been dogged by criticism for the past 3 1/2 years he has worked at SIUC.

Wendler arrived at the University in 2001 with the faculty union inching toward a strike and the nation’s economy begging to slump.

Within the first four months of Wendler’s appointment, he denied four of six promotion and tenure decisions recommended by the Judicial Review Board. He proposed an 18 percent tuition increase to lessen the impact of a severe state budget crisis.

Wendler moved from one constituency group to another trying to garner support for the increase. The Faculty Senate would support him, giving him some encouragement, but the Faculty Association questioned the increase and refused to give its support. Union officials said fallout form that confrontation has colored much of Wendler’s tenure at the University.

“The relationship between the Faculty Association and the chancellor just fell apart and that was the catalyst,” said Marvin Zeman, president of the Faculty Association.

Wendler defended the tuition increase and said his job is not to be conciliatory. He said the University hired him to make tough decisions and that is what he intends to do.

“What would have been the cost of not implementing increases?” Wendler said. “We have to ask the hard questions. Universities are never good enough. No problem that I have ever analyzed has ever been good enough.”

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Wendler’s leadership and decision making have been called into question in recent weeks. Faculty members who had been denied promotion arrived at the March 10 Board of Trustees meeting upset, saying they could not get a fair review. After nearly an hour of public criticism, however, the chancellor was unmoved. He stood by his decisions and by the provost, who made the original tenure decisions. But some faculty members say they continue to have questions about Wendler’s decisions, concerns they say he has not addressed directly addressed with them.

“It’s the $64,000 question,” Zeman said. “Are his decisions correct?”

On the day of the State of the University address, Wendler sat at his desk at 8 a.m. leafing through the 48 pages of his speech. Last year’s speech focused on “places” – the University’s initiatives to update old buildings on campus. Wendler came under fire from some members of the University community because he did not focus his speech enough on people and programs, he said.

Wendler pointed out this year’s speech contained just 24 lines, all in 16-point type, about new construction. Wendler’s motives, movements and initiatives always seem to find their ways into news pages or scrutinized on campus.

“I would rather speak off the cuff, but you need a script,” Wendler said.

Even his critics say the chancellor is personable. Zeman, who always seems to be at odds with the chancellor, said the first time he met him, it felt like it was just a meeting between old friends, just “Marvin and Walter.”

Wendler said he is frequently portrayed as somehow distant from the general faculty and student population – something he says is far from the truth. Wendler’s mother was a cafeteria worker at his high school and his father a janitor at the same school. His blue-collar background is similar to that of many SIUC students.

But it is not Wendler’s personality or background that is debated on the front pages of newspapers or in constituency group boardrooms – it is his policies and decisions.

The most prominent of them is “Southern at 150,” a broad, long-range goal to have the University become one of the nation’s top 75 public research universities by its 150th birthday.

When Wendler was the assistant to the president of Texas A&M University, he helped implement a long-term plan for that university called “Vision 20/20,” which closely resembles “Southern at 150.”

Wendler is known in academia for being able to set wide-ranging goals for public universities aiming for parity with private institutions. While he reviewed his final edit of his speech, a visitor arrived from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, a university that considers SIUC a peer institution, to learn about how to push its own version of “Southern at 150.”

“I’m a broad stroker,” Wendler said. “It’s a little more detailed than I like.”

Still, two outside consulting groups lauded the plan as ambitious but said it lacked specific steps to reach its goals.

Wendler called “Southern at 150” his greatest achievement at SIUC. He said he spent his first two months looking for other big thinkers. In those months, “Southern at 150” was conceived.

Wendler’s honeymoon at SIUC was short-lived. In the following months, Faculty Association members would have rallies denouncing the chancellor and even mocking his dress and image. Students dressed like the chancellor, complete with fake mustaches, and made references to Hitler.

All the while, the University was dividing into deeply entrenched camps. At Anthony Hall, home of the administratative offices, administrators became targets of pointed attacks – Wendler’s leadership the reason of all its failings.

The strike never happened, but some faculty members remain bitter. Wendler just wanted to get back to work.

But controversy followed the New York native. Words he used during the debate over same-sex health benefits ignited more heated exchanges with the University community.

This time, the chancellor expressed views that seemed more in tune with the surrounding rural community and less in step with SIUC.

The chancellor was attacked for his leadership and letting his faith guide policy. He now does not speak about his faith, something that continues to troubles him.

More recently, faculty members have criticized the chancellor for his decisions on promotion and tenure reviews. They also said he created an environment that is hostile to outspoken faculty members.

Wendler offers no direct response but says his job has been a challenge.

“I’m learning stuff on this job that had I known I would have done differently,” Wendler said. “Hindsight is 20/20.”

Wendler said he is almost entirely focused on “Southern at 150.”

“If its not tied to ‘Southern at 150,’ then I’m not paying any attention to it,” Wendler said. “It’s here and part of the culture now.”

The visitor form North Dakota is pleased with Wendler’s knowledge. The chancellor goes on to say the implementation process of any long-range plan has to be relentless.

There can be no rest for those with ideas that seek to further institutions, he said.

“I don’t get a drink of water without tying it to ‘Southern at 150,'” Wendler said.

For all of Wendler’s willingness to take sole responsibility for tough decisions, Wendler has not always been able to cut through the bureaucracy of the University. Ferry, his assistant, said the culture of SIUC has made it difficult for Wendler or anybody else to do so.

“In Carbondale, if you make a decision, somebody will not like it,” Ferry said. “He doesn’t want the status quo.”

But some faculty members accuse him of trying to keep the University at just that.

Robbie Lieberman is the newly elected chairwoman of the Judicial Review Board, which hears appeals from professors who have been denied promotion or tenure. She said if the chancellor continues to override its recommendations, the board could become obsolete.

“They don’t accept that faculty who serve on the JRB are qualified to review other faculty’s promotion and tenure cases,” Lieberman said.

Lieberman said the board is another outlet for faculty to address grievances, but is not a court of law. She said without the board in place, faculty’s only other options would be the Faculty Association or the courts.

From 1990 to 2000, there were 20 appeals of promotion and tenure. In Wendler’s 3 1/2 years as SIUC’s chief administrator, there have been 12 appeals. Wendler has said he doesn’t keep a scorecard. In 2004 alone, Wendler denied three of the five appeals, and approved one. He is expected to make a decision about the fifth appeal by Friday.

Bill Coscarelli, who was the board chairman last year, said the grievance process has become more contentious in recent years as both the administration and professors have begun bringing lawyers to hearings.

“I have a concern that we might be moving toward a more adversarial system,” Coscarelli said.

Lieberman said the chancellor’s repeated denials of the board’s recommendations send a message that it does not understand the promotion and tenure process of various departments. Coscarelli said he believes the provost and chancellor expect more research tenure candidates, but have not formally changed the requirements.

“You can’t change the rules after they are already in place,” Coscarelli said.

Wendler said he makes decisions by the book, adhering to the guidelines set for promotion and tenure. While some still question whether the chancellor makes the right decisions, Wendler said he is completely comfortable being in charge. Wendler said he solicits opinions at meetings of the executive committee but that ultimately “I have 51 percent of the vote.”

Reporter Moustafa Ayad can be reached at [email protected]

Reporter Andrea Zimmermann can be reached at [email protected]

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