Courier-Journal: Robert Felner profile: Accomplishments praised, but he’s left trail of outrage
Trying to help the University of Louisville’s new education dean find a house in 2003, real-estate agent Judy Johnson says she spent hours showing him one in a Harrods Creek gated community.
Only later did she learn that Robert Felner had gone back and bought the house on his own, cutting her out of the deal. Yet he still had the nerve, she said, to call afterward and complain that she hadn’t told him that the house stood in the path of a proposed Ohio River bridge.
To former colleagues within U of L’s College of Education and Human Development — and some other educators around Kentucky — the story perfectly captures Felner: arrogant, outrageous, abusive and duplicitous.
“He was one of the most difficult people I have ever been required to work with in my life,” said Rowan Claypool, program director for Teach Kentucky, which recruits graduates of elite colleges to teach in the state.
Some people credit Felner, who is now the focus of a federal investigation, with turning around the College of Education by improving teaching preparation and dramatically expanding its involvement in local public schools.
“He brought new collaborations to the table and changed the mindset of the college,” said Leon Mooneyhan, who leads a consortium of 14 school districts surrounding Jefferson County. “He was a breath of fresh air in that regard.”
But a dozen former U of L faculty members, including some Felner recruited, said in interviews that he humiliated professors in front of their peers and punished those who challenged him, driving away talented people, including some who once supported him.
Deans at two universities where Felner previously taught say he alienated peers there as well.
“This guy has wrecked the lives of so many people,” said Damon Andrew, who taught under Felner for two years at U of L and is now dean of health and human services for Alabama’s Troy University.
Today, Felner’s own career is in shambles.
The 58-year-old academic and researcher, who resigned from U of L in June to become chancellor at a Wisconsin university, was forced to withdraw from that post after the disclosure that a Secret Service fraud unit and the U.S. attorney’s office were investigating the possible misappropriation of federal grant money that he controlled.
Felner has not been charged. But one of his lawyers has acknowledged that he is “reimbursing any funds that could be in question,” and The Courier-Journal has shown that the No Child Left Behind Center he said he created with the grant money had no office and no staff.
In a 90-minute interview last week, his first since the investigation was disclosed, Felner declined, on the advice of his attorneys, to answer any questions about his handling of grants, how he could afford to buy four homes in three states worth a combined $2.66 million, or the purchase of the house in Harrods Creek.
Instead, he spoke about growing up poor in Brooklyn and Connecticut and the improvements he made at U of L after his hiring in 2003.
He acknowledged that he might have tried to change things too quickly at the College of Education, which a Board of Overseers report before his arrival found severely lacking in teacher preparation and collaboration with local public schools.
“We had to get back in the game, and I probably pushed a little hard and moved a little fast,” he said. “There are some faculty members who experienced the change process in good ways, and others who did not.”
Felner, who seemed self-assured during the interview at the offices of his lawyers, Scott C. Cox and Mark Chandler, also said his “Northern” ways and saucy language may have rubbed people in Louisville the wrong way.
“I am an ethnic kid from the inner city,” he said. “I show my emotions more than most people in higher ed, and more than most people in the South. … In Brooklyn, swearing is just punctuation.”
U of L: Kudos and clashes
School gained stature butbehavior drew complaints
By all accounts, Felner is a first-rate scholar and was a master at landing grants and contracts, which multiplied nearly tenfold to more than $40 million during his five years at U of L.
In his last two years alone, the university jumped 43 places in U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of the top 100 graduate education programs to 56th place.
“He was very keen on getting status for the university, and he knew how to do that,” said Skip Kifer, whom Felner recruited from the University of Kentucky and who now runs Georgetown College’s Center for Advanced Study of Assessment. “He is a world-class schmoozer and knows how to work a room.”
Felner dramatically improved the quality of the college’s teaching candidates for the Jefferson County Public Schools, according to the district’s human resources director, William Eckels.
Mooneyhan said Felner put more student-teachers in the schools, started a program for aspiring principals and helped improve math instruction in middle schools.
But while he excelled at courting those who could help him and the college — including former U.S. Rep. Anne Northup, who earmarked the $694,000 grant that is the subject of the federal investigation — Felner alienated others.
“He was almost self-destructive in the way he turned people off,” said Steve Schenck, a retired associate commissioner for the Kentucky Department of Education, who said Felner denounced work that others had done or sometimes took credit for it himself.
Former state Education Secretary Virginia Fox said Felner “lost his temper when he should have held his tongue” and always had to be the center of attention. “He wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral,” she said.
Felner said Schenk and Fox never voiced any criticisms when he was dean.
In a television interview in June, U of L President James Ramsey characterized faculty and staff complaints against Felner — 31 during his tenure — as “anonymous crap.”
But the newspaper found that at least a half-dozen faculty members, using their names, complained about him to the administration. At least four of them alleged in interviews that they had to hire lawyers to fend off harassment from Felner, including the professor he replaced, interim dean John Welsh.
Shortly after winning the job over Welsh, an award-winning teacher, Felner stood outside Welsh’s classroom and mimicked him so loudly that a student had to get up to close the door, said Ellen McIntyre, then a professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning.
“I was supposed to find that funny,” said McIntyre, who said she witnessed the incident.
She and other faculty members say Felner often would pick on vulnerable professors to try to win the favor of others. “He was a very needy man,” McIntyre said.
Felner’s lawyers wouldn’t let him respond to individual complaints, but he said they come from only a small fraction of the 100 or so faculty members who worked for him.
“Some people like me,” he said, “some people don’t.”
Instructors saw his actions as vindictive
According to grievances and written complaints to the university administration:
Bryant Stamford, whom Felner had named chairman of the college’s department of health science, said Felner demanded he resign in 2005 after Stamford reported to the university a graduate student’s claim that Felner had sexually harassed her. (The university couldn’t substantiate her allegations.)
“Suddenly my work became inferior,” Stamford, who now works at Hanover College and writes a fitness column for The Courier-Journal, said in an interview. Felner and Stamford ultimately settled a grievance in which Stamford claimed Felner had interfered with his right to retire. The terms were confidential, both said.
McIntyre alleged in a letter to U of L’s sexual harassment office that in September 2004, Felner walked into her office, shut the door, stepped up close to her and said in baby talk, “How come you never come and see me?” In her complaint, she said she was so taken aback that “I literally stepped backwards and stammered, ‘Well, I’ve been working.’ ”
In an interview, McIntyre said that after she rebuffed Felner, she was barred from seeking a large federal grant and cut out of other projects; Justin Moore, a former assistant professor in the department of health science who is now at East Carolina University, confirmed that Felner, without citing a reason, told him not to work with McIntyre on a study of the effect of obesity on reading.
Pedro Portes, a former professor and chairman of the department of educational and counseling psychology, said Felner turned on him after Portes objected in writing to Felner’s hiring of someone that Portes described as “a good-looking woman without qualifications.”
Felner said last week that he never hired anyone based on their appearance, and that if he stood too closely to anyone as they spoke, it was because of his urban, ethnic background. He is Jewish.
Portes, who now teaches at the University of Georgia, led a faculty revolt at U of L’s College of Education that culminated in a March 2006 vote of no-confidence against Felner.
During a meeting that Felner attended, faculty members accused him of a litany of charges, including “public humiliation of faculty, workplace harassment, retaliation for voicing opinions, little or no governance, decisions that hurt the college, unacceptable and unfair hiring practices” and “denial of support for research to those who differ in opinion.”
Defending his boss during that emotionally charged confrontation, Robert Ronau, associate dean for research and graduate studies, said, “Robert was not brought here to make people happy, but to put us on the map.”
Ronau, as well as several other faculty members who supported Felner, declined to comment for this story.
The no-confidence vote passed 27-24.
Though largely a symbolic measure, McIntyre said, “I thought it would be one more piece of evidence” for the administration to act on. “But nothing was done.”
McIntyre, Portes and Stamford are among 21 former professors who signed a letter sent Friday to U of L’s board of trustees citing Felner’s “abusive and unethical behavior” and what they described as Ramsey’s insulting response to it.
Ramsey declined to comment for this story.
In an interview Friday, U of L Provost Shirley Willihnganz said she tended to dismiss early complaints about Felner because she thought they came from faculty members “entrenched in their ways and resistant to change.”
She said she talked to faculty after the no-confidence vote, which she said aren’t uncommon, and that some professors staunchly defended Felner while others were critical.
She also said she talked to Felner, but citing confidentiality rules, wouldn’t say what she told him. However, speaking generally, she said most organizations give “high performers” time to change their ways.
Eventually, though, the accumulation of complaints was something that couldn’t be ignored, she said. She declined to say whether Felner was asked to leave U of L but noted that he took a large pay cut in accepting the Wisconsin job. It paid $50,000 a year less than he was making at U of L.
From GED to Yale
Connecticut nativeflourished in academia
The youngest of three children, Robert David Felner was born in Norwich, Conn., a gritty mill town. He said he grew up poor, the son of a truck driver with a sixth-grade education who died when he was 11.
He dropped out of high school in New London, Conn., he said, and worked on tugboats, on trucks and at gas stations. Some of his youth was also spent with family in Brooklyn.
But he later got his General Educational Development certificate and went to the University of Connecticut, he said, “because I got in and it was only $50 a semester.”
“I keep the GED on the wall in my office and the Ph.D. in another room because it’s important to remember where you came from,” he said in May, when he was named chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. “I went from having a GED to being on the faculty at Yale.”
Felner has been married four times but has no children of his own. His current wife, Marilyn, known as Mel, lives in Rhode Island. She never moved to Louisville with him, and she filed for divorce a few weeks after the federal investigation became public.
Felner would only say that they are on “good terms.”
Trained as a clinical psychologist, Felner eventually made his reputation as an expert on measuring the impact of school reform. At each of the five universities where he worked, he was widely published, and his academic resume fills 40 pages, noting articles, honors, grants and fellowships.
But interviews with his former bosses and associates show that his prickly personality also attracted notice at nearly every stop.
At Yale University, where he was an assistant professor in the psychology department from 1976 to 1981, female students circulated a petition to oust him for “bullying and sexual harassment,” according to Lisa Willner, who worked as his teaching assistant and now lives in Louisville.
Felner denied harassing anyone at Yale and said he left in good standing. A spokesman for the university said it wouldn’t discuss the petition and doesn’t discuss why faculty leave.
At Auburn University, where Felner worked from 1981 to 1985, Phil Lewis, the former psychology department dean, said he hired Felner as a professor and director of graduate studies in clinical psychology and eventually came to regret it.
“He was a fast-moving guy who did a lot of research, but he did things without consulting with others, and people took an intense dislike to him,” Lewis said. “When he left, there was a collective sigh of relief.”
At the University of Illinois, where Felner worked from 1986 to 1996, he was removed as director of clinical training in the psychology department because of faculty complaints about his rudeness and attitude, said Emanuel Donchin, who was the department’s chairman.
Later, Donchin said, he removed Felner from the department altogether because of his failure to properly supervise graduate students running an after-school program.
Felner said he left both positions voluntarily and stayed on at the university’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs, where he helped create a survey — the High Performance Learning Community Assessments, dubbed “HiPLaCes-A,” that would become his signature work.
Center set up to survey students, teachers
Moving on to the University of Rhode Island in 1996, Felner launched the National Center on Public Education and Social Policy, which in 1997 won a contract with that state’s education department to conduct an annual survey of students and teachers. It’s been done every year since, and the center has been paid about $12 million for that and other work.
Rhode Island Education Commissioner Peter McWalters said Felner’s survey was instrumental in pinpointing shortcomings in the schools and getting them fixed.
“We had a very straightforward contract and we got what we paid for,” said McWalters. “My respect for his work here is real.”
Kathy Guglielmi Peno, an associate professor at Rhode Island who worked closely with Felner, said he had no tolerance for people who were “lazy or needed baby-sitting,” but “always worked to make things better for the kids. He was all about the kids.”
Even after he left for Louisville in 2003, Felner was listed as the Rhode Island center’s director for three more years. And records show he’s directed nearly $130,000 in U of L money to it since 2005, including a portion of the federal grant that is the subject of the criminal probe. In Kentucky, Felner, a registered independent, met with Northup and her staff three or four times, she said in an interview last week, and persuaded her, as he wrote in a 2004 memo, that a grant for a No Child Left Behind center would “position me/us to take the lead for NCLB (referring to the federal education mandate) in Kentucky and help make Kentucky more visible in NCLB in DC.”
Northup said she trusted Felner, and the university, to manage the money properly. “He seemed so sincere, and the university had such faith in him. … I assumed that he would manage the money right.”
Felner also tried to get Jefferson County Public Schools to use his survey, but Bob Rodosky, the district’s chief of planning and research, said that his price was too high and that it raised a “red flag” when Felner indicated he would analyze the surveys at his center in Rhode Island, even though he said “he wanted us to use the survey to show his bosses there was a relationship between the college and the school district.”
U.S. Attorney David Huber has said the investigation at U of L might not be completed until October.
Felner, meanwhile, passes his time in part at Louisville Bats games where he sits behind home plate, and by going boating on the Ohio River.
He has put his Prospect home on the market but says he doesn’t know where he’ll move or what his future holds.
A sign in front of his house says it has “spectacular views” and a “motivated seller.”