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University of Central Missouri president's ouster raises questions

Thursday, October 29, 2009 | 4:30 p.m. CDT

WARRENSBURG — By most measures, Aaron Podolefsky's nearly five-year tenure as president of the University of Central Missouri has been a success.

Enrollment is up, and so is the school's graduation rate. Podolefsky steered the school through a name change and successfully lobbied for more state and federal money.

But the university's Board of Governors recently voted not to renew his contract — which expires in June — without giving an explanation. A board statement praising the outgoing president's contributions only further muddled the matter.

"People are mystified by this," said Michael Bersin, a Central Missouri music professor who, along with 142 other tenured professors, signed a petition supporting Podolefsky. "It shouldn't be a mystery. The entire university community is owed an explanation."

Bersin — a liberal political blogger — and other supporters suggest the board was influenced by small-town cronyism and religious prejudice.

Podolefsky and his wife, Ronnie, an attorney, are Jewish. While both say they have felt welcome in Warrensburg, a town of 17,000 about 60 miles southeast of Kansas City, they note a radio talk show host unfairly criticized them for removing a Christmas tree from the lawn of Selmo Park, their university-owned home.

The cedar was removed five years before the Podolefskys' arrival. Christmas trees remain on display in the student union and the main quadrangle in front of the administration building, Ronnie Podolefsky said Thursday.

"Until Jews lived in that house, he didn't pay attention to what decorations were in there," she said.

Morning talk show host Greg Hasler is also the play-by-play announcer for Central Missouri's sports teams, a traditional Division II power. He rejected the contention that his on-air criticism of Podolefsky's presidency is rooted in hate.

"They called me a racist. They called me an anti-Semite. I don't even know what that is," Hasler said. "You think a small-town radio guy has the power to fire a president of a university with 11,000 students?"

But Hasler said Ronnie Podolefsky's representation of six female high school students who sued the local school district and a former coach for alleged sexual misconduct created a fissure in Warrensburg, a conservative bedroom community for nearby Whiteman Air Force Base.

The civil case remains pending, though the accused teacher has since resigned in exchange for prosecutors dropping criminal sex abuse charges.

The Central Missouri board met publicly Thursday for about an hour before a 30-minute, closed-door session. The board did not publicly discuss its 4-3 vote not to renew the president's contract. Two of the board members who voted to retain Podolefsky did not attend.

Four of the board members are recent additions. Board Vice President Walter Hicklin, a former university administrator who joined the board in June 2007 after 31 years at Central Missouri, suggested the panel's new makeup may have led to the decision.

"Sometimes a new board just wants to go in a new direction," he said after the meeting.

Podolefsky called the absence of job security when a new board steps in "an occupational hazard," but he also worried the move will make it harder for him to find another job.

"There's no doubt it would make a search committee nervous," he said.

A former dean and provost at the University of Northern Iowa, Podolefsky was on the job market even before the board's decision. He was a finalist for university presidencies at Central Arkansas, Central Washington and Georgia Southern but was not offered any of the jobs.

One of Podolefsky's biggest supporters is Robert Stein, Missouri's higher education commissioner. He wrote and publicly released a glowing letter of recommendation for Podolefsky.

In an interview , Stein expressed hope the school can find a new leader without allowing the dispute over its current president to hinder its future.

"The extent to which the UCM board's decision could damage future prospects is contingent on how quickly they can get beyond the divisiveness and pull together as a university community," he said.


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