UCM president’s exit causes stir in Warrensburg

WARRENSBURG, Mo. — When Aaron Podolefsky arrived on campus in 2004 for a visit that would lead to him becoming president of the University of Central Missouri, he immediately noticed the 80-foot-tall Maastricht Friendship Tower with its Talmudic dictum — Who is wise? He who learns from all people. — inscribed in four languages, including Hebrew.

Podolefsky said the inscription — along with the Bill of Rights on bronze plaques at the base of the flag pole on the campus quad — made him, a Jew originally from New York City — feel welcome.


But now, a month after UCM’s Board of Governors voted not to renew his contract, even as it acclaimed his many successes, Podolefsky wonders whether that initially welcoming feeling was as whole-hearted as it seemed.

And others, including a Jewish music professor-turned-blogger and the Jewish donor of the tower, are asking whether anti-Semitism had anything to do with Podolefsky’s non-retention. His contract expires in June.

Podolefsky’s supporters say he ran afoul of a small-town, old-boy network whose social lives revolve around UCM sporting events.

After weeks of speculation, including a supporting petition drive that quickly got more than half of UCM’s tenured faculty to sign on, a motion to retain Podolefsky failed on a 4-3 vote in a closed meeting of the Board of Governors Oct. 2. The move was not announced until Oct. 13.

It was the “Christmas tree” comments, with their implication of anti-Americanism, made the following day on KOKO-AM radio by talk show host, sports director and part owner Greg Hassler that gave rise to allegations of anti-Semitism. A transcript of Hassler’s remarks was posted at Show Me Progress, a left-leaning blog with which UCM music professor Michael Bersin is associated. (See below for remarks) The question was also raised in an Oct. 29 Associated Press story on the situation.

KOKO and sister station KWKJ-FM have a contract to the broadcast the football and basketball games of Central Missouri — a traditional NCAA Division II power — and Hassler works as a sideline reporter, too.

“It’s not appropriate for me to speculate about Mr. Hassler’s motives,” said Podolefsky. “But I have been asked repeatedly what he has against me and Ronnie, because this has been going on for two and a half years.”

Hassler returned The Chronicle’s request for comment via e-mail, saying:

“First of all let me say that I am not anti-Semitic, I love all people of all religions. I have never stated anything about anyone’s religion on or off the air. People have taken a comment out of context and have spun it for their purpose. All I have done is question the leadership and decisions that were made by the President of UCM … It is unfortunate that people that have never met or talked to me can draw incorrect conclusions about the type of person I am.”

A town divided

Hassler has been a player in another thread in the Podolefsky story — the sex-and race-discrimination and sexual-abuse lawsuit filed by Aaron Podolefsky’s wife, attorney Ronnie Podolefsky, on behalf of six former players against the now-former Warrensburg High School girls’ basketball coach Russell Hough. Although a grand jury eventually decided Hough should be charged with two felony counts in connection with the incidents, the Johnson County, Mo., District Attorney dropped the charges in August in return for Hough’s agreement to resign as coach and teacher in the school district. The civil suit is ongoing.

And yet when the issue first became public, Hassler attacked Ronnie Podolefsky on his radio station.

On Jan. 18, 2008, AP Writer Alan Scher Zagier filed a story headlined “Abuse claims divide small town,” saying Ronnie Podolefsky “has been a particular target in a town long-accustomed to cordial relations with the Central Missouri campus.” He wrote that Hassler’s “on-air broadsides against Podolefsky have fueled the criticism.”

“She’s the first lady of education,” Zagier quoted Hassler as saying. “She’s supposed to be a community leader.”

Zagier reported that some of Hough’s supporters reacted by seeking the dismissal of Aaron Podolefsky from the UCM presidency: “A letter-writing campaign asks the university’s …. Board of Governors to ‘rectify this unjust situation immediately,’ noting that Hough’s allies ‘are beginning to have no choice but to turn our backs’ on the university.”

Successes cited

Aaron Podolefsky’s impact on the UCM campus is apparent. A $36 million “green” retrofitting of the campus is under way, as are other building renovations and the addition of a $20 million wellness center.

When he accepted the job here after 15 years at the University of Northern Iowa, the last eight as provost, it was with Central Missouri State University. The legislature had approved the name change to University of Central Missouri, but Aaron Podolefsky led its implementation on campus, including the creation of a new seal.

Since then, enrollment and student-satisfaction scores are up, he said.

The Princeton Review named UCM among the top 161 Best Midwestern Colleges for 2008. The survey of 654 colleges nationwide also listed UCM as “one of the nation’s best value undergraduate institutions.” U.S. News & World Report ranked UCM 15th among all public master’s-degree institutions in the Midwest and one of “America’s Best Colleges” overall.

UCM Board of Governors President Richard Phillips cited all those successes in a written statement issued upon Aaron Podolefsky’s non-renewal. But his refusal to offer any explanation has angered and frustrated Professor Bersin and other supporters.

Phillips responded to The Chronicle’s e-mailed inquiry about the matter with this:

“As you should know, discussions with regard to personnel matters of the University are not appropriate for public disclosure. Contrary to the tone and implications of your questions, the University does not discriminate as to anyone on any basis.

“I was appointed to the UCM Board of Governors in February of 2005, a few weeks after Aaron was selected to serve as president. Not once has Aaron’s religion been mentioned in any Board discussion.”

Blog rolling

Bersin was so upset by what he took to be the thrust of Hassler’s “Christmas tree” comments that he placed a photocopy of a Nazi-mandated Star of David patch on his office door.

He and his anonymous blogging partner, “Blue Girl,” have posted over two dozen items on the Podolefsky case. Many of their blog posts have been based on requests for public records relating to the case made possible by Missouri’s “Sunshine Law.” It was one of those requests that turned up a letter to Phillips from Benoit Wesly, the Dutch Holocaust survivor whose family donated the tower to UCM in 1998.

According to Blue Girl’s Oct. 29 blog post, Wesly wrote Oct. 22, saying he had “received several times the text of a radio interview between Mr. Greg Hassler and Mrs. Marion Woods. I read the text carefully and I came to my personal conclusion, that this text has a anti-Semitic undertone. …

“I did understand that the radio station has an intensive business relation with the University of Central Missouri, an institution which had and still has my full support. It was a complete shock and still is, that a radio station makes such a horrible statement. I also found out, that the Christmas tree already disappeared during the time Mr. and Mrs. Patton (Ed. note: the previous president and his wife) did stay at Selmo Park.

“I have the following questions:

“Did you or the President of the university started an investigation to clarify the intentions of Mr. Greg Hassler and did you suspend the relationship with this radio station during the investigation. In case the answer is yes, when do you expect the outcome of this investigation and if no, why you have not started this investigation.

“The fine reputation of your university is badly damaged by this radio interview. I am awaiting a positive answer, so I do not need to reconsider my relationship which was established 25 years ago with the University of Central Missouri.”

According to the blog, Phillips responded Oct. 23, saying, in part, “We have a Board meeting next week on October 29 and I will bring this matter to the attention of our Board and will get back to you on any action taken. Please be assured our University will not tolerate discriminatory acts against any group and I will personally look into this matter.”

“Blue Girl,” however, concludes by writing that she attended the Oct. 29 meeting, where “There was no discussion of the ‘matter,’ the subject was not broached, let alone any action taken. … The public silence is deafening.”

The case of the Christmas tree

According to the blog Show Me Progress, the following is the transcript of a conversation Oct. 14 on KOKO-AM 1450 Radio in Warrensburg between Greg Hassler, part owner and sports director, and a man named Marion Woods. This was the day after Podolefsky’s non-retention was announced by the Board of Governors.

Selmo Park is the on-campus president’s residence. The Podolefskys say that after Hassler’s comments became a cause celebre, they checked and found that there had been a cedar tree in the front yard that was decorated with lights in years past at Christmas time, but that it was removed five years before they arrived. The AP’s Oct. 29 story quoted Ronnie Podolefsky as saying that “Christmas trees remain on display in the student union and in the main quadrangle in front of the administration building.”

It is the implication of anti-Americanism that rankles those who support the Podolefskys.

Or as Ronnie Podolefsky told AP, “Until Jews lived in that house, he didn’t pay attention to what decorations were in there.”

The transcript

Greg Hassler: …The University of Central Missouri. End of an era.

Marion Woods: Uh, huh.

Greg Hassler: Aaron Podolefsky. Out. We’ve talked about it for a long time. …

The, the thing that really upset me, that kind of got [garbled] going originally was, for years there was a Christmas tree lit at Selmo Park. Remember that?

Marion Woods: Yep.

Greg Hassler: Drive by. He stopped that. I mean I think every religion should be able to celebrate, uh, in their own way, but, I mean we do live in Warrensburg, Missouri. This is America. You know. Let’s bring that back. How ’bout that?

Marion Woods: Wasn’t that the Christmas tree at the quadrangle?

Greg Hassler: No, there was also one at Selmo Park.

Marion Woods: Oh, okay.

Gregg Hassler: In the, in the yard, area there, so. I mean, I don’t know, it’s just … It was a bad fit from the get go. It’s, it’s over.”