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Is SLU in Permanent Crisis Mode? And Who is Bob Gagne?

The following post is by a concerned member of the SLU community.

Two years ago this week, data for SLU’s biennial employee climate survey were being gathered. Willis Towers Watson, an independent consulting firm that specializes in employee surveys and research, conducted the study to gauge faculty/staff morale and employee perceptions of the university’s leadership.

The results were not pretty.

The 2018 survey results stated, “Faculty and staff have low engagement, morale, and are becoming a retention risk.” When compared with other universities, SLU employee morale was described as “significantly low” [emphasis added].

In fairness, some aspects of the results were not entirely terrible. For example, when SLU employees were asked whether they “get along well together with the people they work with,” the survey results were generally positive. The survey also suggested progress in terms of civility and diversity issues at SLU.

On the other hand, in terms of leadership, there is no sugar-coating the 2018 survey results: since 2014, things at SLU went from bad to worse. Willis Towers Watson reported that SLU’s 2018 survey score for leadership was unusually low, with a “statistically significant difference” compared with other universities.

The biennial climate survey seems to have disappeared (as suggested here). Has SLU reached the point where its senior leadership and/or the board of trustees acknowledge that it is better to abandon the employee climate survey and simply admit that SLU operates in permanent crisis mode?

If this is so, perhaps a crisis manager is needed on SLU’s senior leadership team.

At a town hall meeting in April 2018, the employee climate survey results were released. The oral presentation by representatives from Willis Towers Watson—delivered four months prior to the announcement of the Sinquefield “gift”—included slides with remarks from employees:

  • “The leadership needs to focus on the improvement of SLU as a not-for-profit educational institution, with a focus on undergraduate education. Over the last several years, it has become clear that the administration, at the direction of the Board of Trustees, has tried to restructure SLU as a for-profit research entity. That is contrary to the mission and history of the institution.”
  • “The new reality [at SLU] is about cost-cutting and short-changing, and not vision or higher purpose, greater good, or anything else.”
  • “The university is top-heavy. Every time there is a problem we get a new VP, or some other leadership position. While we jettison staff, faculty and programs, the top appear to believe that their positions are more secure, by adding more people like them, because they push that an idea from a person with a 6-figure income will innovate some magical solution.”

In response to the 2018 survey, SLU’s senior leadership offered a scapegoat. Indeed, President Pestello signaled that the provost had been chosen to play the victim when she did not attend that town hall.

Within days after the 2018 survey results were announced, word began to circulate that the provost was “stepping down.” There was no public connection drawn between the climate survey (with its scathing evaluation of senior leadership) and the change in SLU’s chief academic officer. The official announcement regarding the provost did not come until late June, just a few hours before Chet Gillis was announced as the new interim provost. When introduced to the SLU community, Gillis claimed that he was unaware of the 2018 climate survey, adding that his impression was that morale at SLU was rather good.

The scathing results of the 2018 climate survey were never mentioned alongside the scapegoating of the previous provost. To the contrary, the St. Louis Business Journal ran a puff piece, in which the former provost was credited with “revitalizing SLU” and leaving behind a “lasting legacy.”

Another response to the 2018 climate survey was mostly kept out of the public eye: Pestello hired a new chief of staff, Bob Gagne. This appointment was curious in many ways—it was secretive, there was no public announcement, and Gagne was never introduced to the SLU community.

With no introduction, the SLU community was never given a chance to consider Gagne’s strange qualifications. He is, by training and profession, a crisis manager with a PR background. He has no direct experience in Catholic or Jesuit higher education. Indeed, he apparently has never worked at a university, except as an outside consultant. His best-known project at a university? On Linkedin, Gagne mentions only one credential in higher education: “Helped a St. Louis-based university secure a peaceful and constructive resolution to a six-day campus occupation that occurred in the wake of the Ferguson, Missouri, demonstrations, and positioned the university as a moral leader, helping spur a record year in fundraising, freshman enrollment and social media followers.” In other words, Gagne’s only apparent qualification to serve as Pestello’s chief of staff is that he helped Pestello navigate difficult decisions during the campus occupation of October 2014.

It’s worth noting that, on SLU’s campus, Pestello’s chief of staff is virtually unnoticed and almost invisible. In part, that’s because Pestello sightings on campus have become rare. Nevertheless, any time Pestello appears on campus (passing out donuts or soft-batch cookies, petting the tiny ponies, or on those rare occasions when he addresses the faculty or staff), Gagne is usually also present, hidden in the background, away from the focus of attention.

Why don’t SLU employees recognize the person who likely has the most access to the university’s president?

Gagne is mostly not listed on SLU’s website: surf to the site for SLU’s Office of the President, and you will find nothing about Bob Gagne or a chief of staff. If you try searching for Gagne on slu.edu, you’ll find almost nothing. (Gagne is listed on SLU’s People Finder Directory as Chief of Staff, President’s Office.) If you look for a picture of Bob Gagne online, well, good luck with that, as there are virtually no photos of Gagne available online. (One dated photo of Gagne is available here, although he has since acquired a new pair of glasses.) Gagne has almost no online presence at SLU, even though he seems to have more access to Pestello than any other SLU employee. SLU’s crisis-managing chief of staff is so invisible that most SLU employees probably don’t know whether they’ve ever seen him.

Some might find themselves asking, “What is a crisis manager? Why does SLU have a crisis manager working as the president’s chief of staff? Has this administration reached the point where SLU is in a permanent state of crisis?”

Here is how Gagne describes his expertise on Linkedin: “As a crisis manager, I help devise and implement pragmatic crisis management strategies that are grounded by an organization’s values, enable pursuit of its strategic objectives and fulfill its promise to its customers.” In another place, Gagne writes, “When developing a plan, a crisis manager has to devise a strategy and compelling narrative.” The task of the crisis manager is to “neutralize” a situation. “Otherwise, you and your client may find yourselves playing a losing game of catch-up.”

In other words, SLU’s senior leadership has reached the point where, instead of engaging with the academic community in open debate, it relies on a supposedly expert crisis manager to “devise a strategy and compelling narrative” that aims to “neutralize” those who express dissenting views—not exactly a shining example of meaningful shared governance.

As the previous climate surveys show, many SLU employees have serious questions about Pestello’s leadership. Perhaps it’s time to start probing and investigating. Below are a dozen questions that members of the SLU community might ask regarding Bob Gagne:

1. When did Bob Gagne become Pestello’s chief of staff? Was he working as a consultant prior to his appointment as chief of staff?

2. Why wasn’t there an announcement to the SLU community when Gagne become chief of staff for SLU’s president?

3. Given Bob Gagne’s background in reputation management and the practice of writing “business profiles,” did Gagne write the puff piece about the former provost published in the St. Louis Business Journal? Did someone from SLU pay to publish this? If so, who and how much?

4. Did Kent Porterfield (former SLU VP for Student Development) step down because of Bob Gagne? Is it true that Porterfield felt that he no longer had access to Pestello and that all interactions with Pestello are filtered through Gagne?

5. Bob Gagne was present at the event when Chet Gillis was introduced as SLU’s interim provost. Did Gagne orchestrate the hiring of Gillis and/or the public introduction of Gillis? Was Gagne aware of the pushback from faculty who questioned whether the hiring of Gillis violated SLU’s faculty manual?

6. Did Bob Gagne play a role in the administration’s public response to the Sinquefield “gift”? Were the issues concerning violations of academic norms raised by SLU faculty regarding the Sinquefield “gift” treated within the president’s office as a “crisis” requiring the response of a purported crisis-management expert?

7. On SLU’s IRS Form 990, Part VII lists the income of SLU’s key employees. Why isn’t Bob Gagne listed as a key employee of SLU? How much is Gagne being paid?

8. Does Bob Gagne work for SLU or does he work for Pestello? Is his job to advance SLU’s mission or to protect Pestello from recurring crises?

9. On November 6, 2019, there was an “open conversation on the proposed common core,” in which Pestello characterized the situation as a crisis. In his remarks, Pestello made inaccurate statements about the Higher Learning Commission (HLC). Pestello claimed that SLU would face a crisis unless the proposed common core was passed. In the Q&A, Pestello acknowledged he did not know the details of the core proposal. Did Bob Gagne, in his role as crisis manager, write the (inaccurate) remarks that Pestello delivered at the November 6 meeting? Did Gagne consult with Steve Sanchez from the provost’s office, who is more knowledgeable about the details, and who is aware that the statements made by Pestello on November 6 were inaccurate?

10. Many are aware of the upcoming HLC visit, but there has been less attention paid to another group that examines SLU’s institutional health. In February 2019, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities issued a Peer Visitor Committee Report on the state of SLU as a Jesuit institution, with a final report to follow from the Superior General of the Jesuits. The Peer Report noted SLU’s “particularly low morale” and offered a quite negative evaluation of SLU’s senior leadership: “[T]here is not a strong sense, among the leadership, that mission extends well beyond an affirmation of good will, a welcoming attitude toward faith, and a commitment to service. Knowledge of the intellectual breadth of the Catholic tradition, formation in the depth of Ignatian reflection and discernment, and a lack of familiarity with the language of Jesuit mission” are noted as weaknesses of SLU’s senior leadership. Has the senior leadership received the final report from the Superior General of the Society of Jesus? If so, why hasn’t this report been released to the SLU community? Is SLU at risk of facing a crisis of being put on probation by the Society of Jesus? Did Bob Gagne play a role in deciding not to release the report from the Superior General of the Jesuits to the rest of the SLU community?

11. Is it true that the Jesuit community at SLU has tried to express concerns to Pestello about the direction of SLU and that the Jesuits have tried to arrange a meeting with the president, but Bob Gagne has prevented them from doing so by claiming that Pestello does not have available openings on his schedule to meet with the SLU Jesuits? Is Pestello aware of this? Why won’t Gagne allow the SLU Jesuits to meet with SLU’s president?

12. Was it Bob Gagne’s decision to eliminate SLU’s biennial employee climate survey?

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