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In this, the twenty-ninth post in an ongoing series as we file Missouri Sunshine Law (RSMo 610) requests and investigate the non-renewal of the contract of University of Central Missouri President Aaron Podolefsky, those of you who have been asking for a timeline finally get what you have been asking for. Links to previous coverage are below the fold. BG and MB

Those of you who have been following this series as we file Missouri Sunshine Law (RSMo 610) requests and investigate the non-renewal of the contract of University of Central Missouri (UCM) President Aaron Podolefsky probably have a good idea of what we suspect to be going on there.  However, there have been a couple of calls for us to provide a summary of the story so far.  We’d have posted this sooner, but we had to run it past legal first. We’ve been given the all-clear, so here it is.

The non-renewal of Dr. Podolefsky’s contract seems an utterly bizarre decision, given his numerous accomplishments at UCM: he significantly raised the university’s academic profile, evidenced by setting university records for the highest quality first-year student class, highest graduation rate, and highest job placement rate (96.8%) in the institution’s history. In fall 2008, UCM enrolled the largest first-year class and the largest total enrollment in 15 years.  He also enjoys strong support among the faculty, students and the Warrensburg community.  More than 70% of respondents in a Warrensburg Daily Star-Journal poll said that he should be retained by the university, and more than 80% of respondents voted the same way in a poll in the UCM campus newspaper, the Muleskinner.  In October 2009, a majority (142) of tenured faculty members signed a petition asking the Board of Governors to extend Podolefsky’s contract.  A small minority of faculty expressed opposition to Podolefsky at that time, but most of them were citing factually incorrect information regarding a gift to the university, a vendor agreement with a cola company, or a recent Campus Climate Survey.  Perhaps it’s just coincidence, but so much of the false information being circulated seems to have a common point of origin – one particular college-a college whose dean, again perhaps coincidentally, is alleged to have instructed faculty members not to sign the petition in support of Podolefsky. The way the factors converge here, it really does stretch credulity and defy statistics that it should all be mere coincidence.

We heard a whole bunch of rumors about the possible motivations of the members of the Board of Governors (BoG) so we decided to do a little digging and check the validity of the allegations via a number of Missouri Sunshine Law requests and a re-examination of known events.  What we found was very disturbing, and the lowest common denominator seems always to be the Athletics Program.

Making the UCM Athletics Program live within its budget

Since both President Podolefsky and the BoG refuse to discuss the matter and the BoG won’t reveal their motives, saying only that “sometimes with new BoG members, there is a desire to go in a new direction,” so we are unable to come to a definitive conclusion,  we leave it to our readers to draw their own conclusions about the following:

Prior to Fiscal Year 2008, the UCM Athletics Programs was regularly running annual deficits in excess of $400,000, according to data received via Mo. Sunshine Law requests.  This shortage was reconciled at the end of each fiscal year, with the University general fund making up the difference.  In FY2006, this overspending reached an all-time high; in addition to a healthy $4.4 million base budget, $400,000 in generated funds (ticket sales, concessions, etc.), and Foundation contributions (amount unknown), the University provided two separate infusions of money to Athletics, totaling more than $700,000.  The following year, the general fund adjustment to cover overspending was $415,000.

It would certainly seem that a program regularly running up such deficits does not have a sufficient budget to cover expenses.  Therefore, in FY2008 a new Athletics Fee was added to student tuition, resulting in an increase in funds generated for Athletics that brought the total to over $900,000.  This Athletics Fee was proposed by President Podolefsky.  

Increasing the Athletics budget so substantially ought to have made him a popular figure among those in Athletics and their supporters, right? It might have, except something else happened in FY2008: in spite of the increases, the Athletics Program spent over $6.3 million, again running a deficit, this time spending $112,000 beyond what was budgeted – and this time it was not reconciled from the University general fund.  The following year, the Athletics budget was reduced by $112,000.  In FY2009, Athletics again went over budget by $142,000, and once again the budget was reduced by the corresponding amount.

Those numbers seem to tell a pretty compelling story.  President Podolefsky, perhaps for the first time in the university’s history, made a serious attempt to rein in general fund overspending by the Athletics Program, replacing it, for the first time with a student athletics fee.  Athletics got more money, but they were forced to live with a set budget.  For shame!  

But wait! There’s more! We learned soon enough that this was not his only sin involving Athletics.  

Naming a new Vice President for University Advancement

In 2007, UCM began a search for a Vice President of University Advancement (VPUA); the person appointed to this position would be in charge of the overall strategic plan to attract and utilize outside donations to the university.  It is common knowledge that Athletic Director Jerry Hughes wanted this position but didn’t make the cut – not because the President didn’t want him, but because the hiring committee didn’t want him in that position.  We are unaware of his personal reaction to being denied the position, but it does not seem coincidental that, on the day that the appointment of Larry Cowan to the VPUA. position was announced, a local radio sports-talk deejay and close associate of the UCM Athletics Director began a campaign of publicly disparaging President Podolefsky, as well as Larry Cowan and Betty Roberts, the V.P. of Admin and Finance who chaired the hiring committee members.  (Perhaps it is coincidence that all three of these people are minorities, but the deejay in question, Greg Hassler, has continued to “misspeak” in his criticism of Podolefsky, recently drawing the ire of one of UCM’s most important and respected donors for anti-Semitic remarks about the UCM President and his family.)  Some months earlier, Mr. Hassler seemed more than happy to take advantage upon learning that the President’s wife intended to provide legal representation for six local female athletes who had accused a Warrensburg High School coach of inappropriate conduct. Mr. Hassler was very successful promoting her actions as controversial and in dividing public opinion regarding both the alleged incident and Ms. Podolefsky’s professional responsibilities.

Paying off the Stadium bond

Limiting excessive spending and spurning the aspirations of the Athletics Director might be damning enough, but President Podolefsky apparently went for a hat-trick in 2007 and committed a third sin:  He insisted that certain funds generated from the UCM Stadium stop being misused.  When the UCM Stadium was replaced, the university had to take out a $4 million bond to cover the costs ($1 million came from a donation).  The 1999 bond agreement states that all funds generated from the rental of the Stadium suites, approximately $44,000 per year, were to be used to pay off the bond.  Originally, rental funds were deposited in the foundation and then returned to the university to cover the bond payment, but several years before Podolefsky’s arrival, this was changed.  According to documents received via Sunshine Law requests, until FY2008 these funds were not used as specified and required in the bond agreement. Besides being in violation of the bond agreement, the $44,000 obviously had to be made up by the general fund.  Given the other fiscal reforms introduced by President Podolefsky in that year, it is reasonable to believe that putting an end to this situation-which had previously, and perhaps improperly, benefited UCM Athletics-was his doing as well.  

A very pro-Athletics Board of Governors

But what does all of this have to do with the UCM Board of Governors?  Quite a bit, the evidence would suggest.  Three of the four BoG members who recently voted not to renew President Podolefsky’s contract were appointed shortly after the UCM Athletics Director did not receive the VPUA position; it is public knowledge that Mr. Hughes accompanied one of them, Weldon Brady, to his swearing-in ceremony in Jefferson City.  All four of the BoG members who voted against renewal cite UCM Athletics as a main tie to the university, and two of them are former UCM football coaches.  Problems between the new BoG members and President Podolefsky must have started right away, since Board member Richard Philips approached Faculty Senate President Jack Rogers in November 2007-less than three months after UCM was first named one of “America’s Best Colleges” by U.S. News & World Report-to ask how the faculty would respond if the Board were to buy out President Podolefsky’s contract.  His response was clearly in the negative.

Another oft-cited rumor around campus is that the BoG voted in December 2008 not to extend Dr. Podolefsky’s contract.  The BoG has thus far refused to deny that the vote occurred, saying only that there was no “reportable” (i.e. final) vote.  Is it any wonder that, beginning last spring, Dr. Podolefsky began to take more seriously his nominations for other Presidential positions?  

I heard it on the radio

More recently, we have the BoG’s actions, or lack thereof, which also seem to demonstrate an inclination to “let things slide” any time the UCM Athletics program is involved.  Board members seem hesitant to act regarding Mr. Hassler’s recent radio statements (cited above).  In response to the letter of complaint from UCM donor Benoit Wesly, Board President Richard Philips promised to take action at following Board meeting on October 29.  We were at that meeting, and we can verify that the matter was not discussed at all, and we have no reason to believe that any action was taken subsequently in closed session, since such discussion or action would not fall under the exclusionary provisions of the Missouri Sunshine Law.  I have personally inquired via email asking Mr. Philips to comment on his failure to address Mr. Wesly’s concerns but I have not received the courtesy of a response to either request.

If that were not insulting enough, Mr. Hassler’s relationship with the university seems as strong as ever; he was subsequently recognized on the field at the UCM football game on October 31 for his sponsorship.

All in the family

Perhaps the most important commonality between the UCM Athletics Director and some members of the Board of Governors is their apparent mutual belief that they should not have to answer to anyone, for any reason.  Four of the BoG members pressed ahead with the vote not to renew President Podolefsky’s contract, in spite of all the clear indicators (cited above) that he is strongly supported by the majority of the UCM and Warrensburg community.  The “path forward” recently announced by the Board, detailing the upcoming presidential search, does not inspire confidence.  There was no Request for Proposal, as is standard in such situations, the faculty were not involved in any way, and the decision was made in closed session to pay $80,000 to a small Missouri firm rather than a national firm to conduct the search.  The firm in question has almost no experience in conducting this kind of search, but apparently they have one important qualification: personal relationships with BoG members.  This is not how such important processes are normally handled.  The trend of bringing in friends of BoG members seemed to be evident even in the selection of at least one of the new Board appointments on November 6 – Marvin “Bunky” Wright.  While it is the Missouri State Governor who makes the appointments, Board members normally make nominations and have some say in who is appointed.

Athletics reigns supreme

So, was Aaron Podolefsky fired (ahem, did not have his contract renewed) over athletics?  We don’t know for certain, but it sure smells like a coup d’état to us.  And is that necessarily a bad thing?  Yes, yes it is.  Not because Athletics shouldn’t have a role at a state university; indeed, one could even call Athletics an important component of the institution.  Based on the introduction of the new fee and several major construction projects in support of athletics, it would seem that President Podolefsky thinks so as well.  Apparently, however, he does not believe that Athletics should be the key driver of the institution and above any reproach.  We agree.  It would seem that the Board of Governors does not.

Who cares?

We do, and if you’re a taxpayer in Missouri, you should care, too.  A robust state university system is a key driver of our economy and supplies us with the skilled labor and brainpower that drive our state’s future.  Having one of these universities move backwards in order for the institution to play a subservient role an Athletics program benefits no one outside of a small “club.”  Dr. Podolefsky acted in support of a healthy Athletics program, just as he acted successfully to improve institutional quality and bring national attention to UCM.  He put an end to inappropriate institutional habits, but instead of being recognized for it, he was let go the board declined to renew his contract.  So what direction does the Board want to take the university?  We don’t know, but at
least one Board member has questioned the university’s decision to have “moderately selective” enrollment, one of the key factors in the institution’s recent successes.  UCM’s future does not look bright, and it is for this reason that we believe the Board of Governors has failed in their responsibility to provide appropriate stewardship for the university.  

The real path forward

As long as this summary seems, it just scratches the surface of what we’ve uncovered in this investigative series.  We’ll keep digging, but we think there’s enough information here for you to come to your own conclusion.  If you agree with us, what can you do?  Assuming you’re a Missouri resident, or an alum, or just a supporter of the institution, then you’re well within your rights to make your voice heard.  Of course, you could always contact the BoG members themselves, but we don’t think they’re listening, so a better option would be to contact Governor Nixon’s office – the phone number is 573-751-3222, and here is the link to the contact page on the Governor’s official website – since he is the only person in the state with the power to improve the situation by removing Board members.  At this point, we see no other solution.

Our previous coverage:

Three steps behind, and to the right (January 25, 2008)

Three steps behind, and to the right, part 2 – a microcosm of our universe (September 21, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”? (October 15, 2009) (transcript of a portion of the live radio broadcast)

It wasn’t just about a tree (October 21, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement?”: I heard it on the radio (October 21, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement?”: let’s not get cut out of the will (October 22, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement?”: $87.75 will get you one sheet of paper (October 23, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement?”: They’re not playing hardball, they’re playing cat and mouse
 (October 23, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement?”: a cola and some scoreboards (October 24, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement?”: a few more pieces of the puzzle? (October 28, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: your silence means consent (October 29, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: let’s not get cut out of the will, part 2 (October 30, 2009)

Old media irony impairment (October 30, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement?”: I heard it on the radio, part 2 (October 31, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: where everybody knows your name (October 31, 2009)

Methinks that someone is paying attention! (November 2, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: Bond, Stadium Bond (November 4, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: where everybody knows your name, part 2 (November 4, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: I heard it on the radio, part 3 (November 5, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: nothing succeeds like success (November 6, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: your Friday news dump (November 6, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: nothing exceeds like excess (November 7, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: a grade for Accounting 101 (November 7, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: there ought to be a law (November 8, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: there’s gotta be a contract around here somewhere (November 9, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: there ought to be a law, part 2 (November 10, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: Garbo speaks! (November 12, 2009)

“A Gentleman’s Agreement”?: the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle (November 13, 2009)