Robert Felner picked to lead UW-Parkside resigns amid probe

by E Wayne Ross on June 24, 2008

Man picked to lead UW-Parkside resigns amid probe


A University of Louisville dean hired to lead the University of Wisconsin-Parkside resigned his appointment Tuesday amid a federal criminal investigation in Kentucky.

Robert Felner, dean of the Louisville College of Education and Human Development, was to start as chancellor of UW-Parkside in Kenosha next week. But Felner alerted UW System President Kevin Reilly on Sunday that his college was facing a criminal investigation and offered to resign, said spokesman David Giroux.

Reilly announced he accepted the resignation Tuesday after Felner’s attorney told the Louisville Courier-Journal his client was the focus of an investigation into whether $500,000 in federal grant money was mishandled.

“Everyone involved here realized there would be significant distractions with him stepping in as chancellor of UW-Parkside,” Giroux said. “And everyone agrees, this is in the best interest of UW-Parkside.”

In a one-paragraph letter, Felner’s attorney said he “decided to decline accepting his appointment.” He was to work the first month alongside Chancellor Jack Keating, who is retiring at the end of July, before replacing him.

U.S. Attorney David Huber of Kentucky’s Western District said Monday his office and two federal agencies were conducting an investigation after the university turned over information. He declined further comment.

Felner’s attorney, Scott Cox, told the Courier-Journal his client had not mishandled any funds and was cooperating with investigators. Cox, who did not return messages from The Associated Press, told the newspaper Felner was concerned his appointment would “create a problem, even if it’s just a perception problem, at the University of Wisconsin.”

Reilly expects to appoint an interim chancellor in coming weeks for UW-Parkside, a school of 5,000, to replace Keating while a new national search for a chancellor gets under way, Giroux said.

Giroux said the system will investigate whether Felner’s background was properly vetted during the initial search. Among the potential areas of inquiry, he said, will be the performance of a search firm hired to help.

State Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater and chairman of an Assembly committee on higher education, praised the system for moving decisively to accept Felner’s resignation. Now, he said, system leaders should perform a review of their search and screen process.

“They need to explain what has gone wrong,” he said. “Someone needs to be held accountable. Why did this happen?”

The Board of Regents approved Felner as the school’s chancellor earlier this month with a salary of $205,000. The contract guaranteed him free housing at the chancellor’s residence, a state car and a tenured faculty position.

Felner beat out three other finalists for the job after a lengthy interview process. System leaders said Felner’s personal story as a high school dropout who earned a GED before succeeding in higher education would be a good fit for UW-Parkside, the system’s most diverse campus.

Regent Michael Falbo, who led the regents’ selection committee for the job, said earlier Tuesday that Felner “was the best qualified candidate” and he was shocked to learn about the investigation.

“It was his overall experience, background, education,” he said. “Everything appeared to be appropriate.”

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.