Jerk du Jour: Robert Felner, bully par excellence!

If you see this man on your campus, alert the authorities

If you see this man on your campus, alert the authorities

Speaking of academic workplace bullying, today we find an interesting story at Inside Higher Ed about a (now former) Dean at the University of Louisville who sounds like a real piece of work.  Go read, shudder, and thank your lucky stars that this guy is now unemployed and no longer in a position to do harm to faculty, students, or any other institutions of higher learning.  (For now, anyway).

The story has it all–an allegation of sexual harassment, a dodgy doctorate awarded to a crony after only one semester of work at the university, alleged misappropriation of federal grant money, and (of course!) retaliation against anyone who tried to do hir duty and stop this guy.  As one former UL faculty member who worked there for 32 years said, “He did the Russian mafia thing: If I can’t kill you, I’m going to kill everybody you care about.” 

What also piqued my interest was the angle of the story, which is that harassment policies focus on sexual harassment and ethnic intimidation.  If someone is an equal opportunity creep, it’s very hard to take action against hir:

Felner, whom the university provided with legal counsel, always fared well in the faculty grievance process. Of the four cases that came before the University Faculty Grievance Committee, which is made up of faculty members selected by their units, the dean was never found to be at fault. But a number of the complaints about Felner never made it into the grievance process, in part because faculty members said they felt intimidated or were told their concerns couldn’t be handled in a process designed to address policy or procedure violations.

“The grievance process, as it stands, doesn’t have room for [addressing] people being jerks,” says Beth Boehm, the outgoing Faculty Senate chair, who is working with a committee to revise the process.

This is a point made in the comments to the previous post by D. A. Xue and Shaz.  As Shaz said, “people who are asses to everyone are often not breaking any rules, other than civility. Much easier to take official action against a sexist/racist/etc. than an equal-opportunity bully.”  Or, as Mary Ellen McIntyre, one of the UL faculty who complained about the “environment of fear and retaliation” that Felner created, said:  “It’s more about ethics than policies. It’s more about morale, and respect — the kind of stuff that you really can’t grieve.” 

Another issue in this story is the way in which institutions always maneuver to protect administrators.  Could this be because it’s other administrators who have elevated the jerks to their position of authority in the first place, and then it’s also the other administrators’ call as to whether or  not to defend them?  Hmmm?  (This is something I saw at my former institution:  once someone is made a chair of a department, unless ze kills someone with hir bare hands in full view of the Dean, the Dean and other administrators are very unlikely to take action against the offending Chair.  For taking action against a department chair would be a tacit admission that one’s judgment was flawed in permitting that person to become a department chair in the first place.)  I should note that the IHE story points out that the president and provost of UL have apologized for supporting Felner and keeping him in his position as long as they did.

Good for UL for seizing the opportunity to revise their grievance process.  Perhaps UL will craft new grievance criteria that other institutions can use as a template to draft policies that will allow them to weed out the bullies.

0 thoughts on “Jerk du Jour: Robert Felner, bully par excellence!

  1. Historiann –

    I would be curious to hear your take on Iowa Central Community College President Robert Paxton getting run out of Fort Dodge. Here’s a guy who was trying to remove a miniature keg of Coors Light from a young woman’s face, trying to help fix the tap on it, trying to do the right thing, and the next thing you know he’s out of a job. Where’s the justice there?


  2. Ha-ha! I saw that story last week. It’s just amazing to see who gets promoted into administration, isn’t it?

    Honestly–I bet most of his lowliest adjunct faculty would have had better judgment than that. In the age of camera phones, MySpace, and YouTube, college hijinx are 1) going to stay with youthful offenders forever in cyberspace, and 2) something that anyone in any position of authority or responsibility would do well to stay away from. So, my take is: dumb, dumb, dumb.

    p.s. Did you like your birthday cake? (Scroll down to Sept. 1.)


  3. ** Grab your DSM-IV under ‘personality disorders’ **

    It’s so refreshing to see the values of corporate America being emulated in the academic industry sector.

    Despite misgivings, upper management will accept sociopathic behavior as long as it appears to be “progress.”

    Sociopaths want you to be afraid — very afraid of them. They feed on fear. Fear glorifies and magnifies its objects.

    The sociopath become leader. Just picture him as President of the US. (Or, as CEO of Oracle) — sociopaths can get things done quickly — but at enormous cost. Not even the tissue paper of a constitution threatens a CEO who is “increasing shareholder value.”

    Why do such people remain in positions of authority? It takes moral courage to oppose them.

    If academics were risk takers, there’d be no need for tenure.



  4. Hi bipolar2–thanks for stopping by to comment. Felner is stopped, for now at least. I’m surprised he was able to con another university (however briefly) into hiring him.

    You write, “if academics were risk takers, there’d be no need for tenure.” Most of us aren’t risk takers, that is true. But for those of us who ARE risk takers, that’s exactly why we need tenure. There is another debate of course about the ways in which the pursuit of tenure drains the risk-taking out of people, so I acknowledge that tenure is far from all good.


  5. Felner was protected because he was doing his job, which is to vigorously represent the interests of management. In other words, he’s squeezing faculty to do more with less. To a certain extent, being a sociopath was his job, though certainly sexual harassment was not. Clearly, Felner is a rotten apple, but to what extent is the problem systemic?

    Lots of academics are risk-takers. But leaving a tenure-track or tenured job most often isn’t a risk, it’s professional suicide. Depending on the field, many PhDs never even enter the academy and many others leave either by their choice or not. But I think most academics feel a stronger pull to the academy because their jobs are also their life’s work, in contrast to the push out of the academy because of strained labor relations, which they’re likely to find everywhere. So, we stay more for love of our current work than fear of getting a new job.


  6. Good points, Uncle Bruno. Deans represent management, although sometimes the faculty luck out and get a Dean who tries to balance that with the interests of the faculty and students. (I have a Dean like that now, thank goodness, but it hasn’t always been that way.)

    Perhaps the problem with Felner is that he let the sociopathy go to his head, and he thought he could get away with anything? If he had soft-pedaled it a bit and had not become such a public embarassment, he might still be at U of L.


  7. The family of Robert Felner is disgusted with him! We are very ashamed of him and hope justice will prevail. We all hope the judge throws the book at him.


  8. If PRESIDENT Ramsey and PROVOST Willinghanz were truly sorry, they would clean up the mess that was left behind by ROBERT and his posse. Those of us who were forced out of the university know that the PRESIDENT/PROVOST don’t really care about their faculty, students, or staff. The PROVOST condoned sexual harrassment, for goodness sake. The PRESIDENT ignored the obnoxious work environment suffered by distinguished and high-performing faculty. Why? Why would the top ranking officials at a state university of 17,000 students collude with a dean as he was lining his pockets? What was in it for them?

    Let them apologize personally to the students and faculty who were harmed by ROBERT. Then we might be able to listen to the phrase “U of L” without gagging.


  9. This is very sad but not unique. The college scene is nothing more than a money making machine and Robert just wanted a bigger piece of the pie….what a joke.


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