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Biondi asks SLU board to start search for his successor

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The Rev. Lawrence Biondi announced Saturday night at a gala celebrating his 25 years as president of Saint Louis University that he will leave his office and has asked the university's board to start searching for his successor.

The announcement comes at the end of a strife-filled year during which faculty members and students voted no confidence in his leadership.

In a statement released by the university, Biondi said:

“Just as I helped lead SLU’s transformation when I arrived here more than 25 years ago, I know it is now time for the next transformation to begin. And, so, with the blessing of our Board of Trustees, I have decided it is time for a transition in leadership for Saint Louis University — time for me to move on to the next phase of my life. This fall, the board will launch a search for my successor. I will be here as long as they need me and will do everything I can to make the transition to our next president as smooth as possible.”

“As I approach my 75th birthday, I know I am ready for new challenges — challenges that might include heeding the call of our General Superior in Rome, Father Nicolas, who has asked Jesuits around the world to focus on care for the poor, the marginalized, the uneducated and immigrants. Right now, I remain open to how God is calling me to serve others in ways, yet to be discerned.”

Details about transition plans and search processes will be communicated to the university community in the weeks ahead. No timetable has been set for completion of the search process.

At its meeting on campus Saturday morning, the board chose J. Joe Adorjan to serve as chairman, succeeding Thomas H. Brouster, Sr., who announced in April he would step down as board chair at the end of the academic year. The board also elected trustee Patrick J. Sly as vice chairman.

The university statement quoted Adorjan as saying:

“I am committed to working with Father Biondi and all university stakeholders to continue to advance this great institution. With Pat Sly as vice chairman, I am very confident that we have a strong leadership team in place to advise Father Biondi and the Board of Trustees as we move forward.”

While the $1,000-a-plate tribute to Biondi -- which raised  $1.4 million in gifts and sponsorships for SLU student scholarships and academic initiatives -- was going on at Chaifetz Arena, outside the arena students and others held what they called an alternative gala.

Word about Biondi's decision to step down filtered out to the crowd, where one faculty member, Kathryn Kuhn, praised the move.

"I think it is very, very positive for the university," she told the Beacon. "I think someone has finally listened to us. This is great news."

Other faculty members who were active in the move to oust Biondi reacted this way:

Jane Turner, new president of the Faculty Senate:

"I wish to express sincere appreciation to the Board of Trustees for responding to the votes of no confidence in Fr. Biondi. I am certain that other faculty would join me in thanking Fr. Biondi for his years of service to SLU and for providing a solid foundation on which the next president of SLU and SLU's faculty can continue to build our fine institution.  

"As for formation of a search committee for a new president, I expect that the presidents of the Student Government Association, Staff Advisory Committee and Faculty Senate would be members of that committee as they have been in the past.  The university bylaws no longer restrict the office of the president to only Jesuits; therefore, this search will have a wider net to cast than previous searches for this office."

Steve Harris, head of the SLU chapter of the American Association of University Professors:

"I'm grateful to Fr. Biondi for having built this university up from what it was to what he is bequeathing now to the future; that is an immense success story. And I'm grateful that he has come around to see that now is the time to pass the baton on to a new era of leadership.

"The story of the solidarity of purpose it took to make that last point clear and loud enough for everyone to hear, is one of many people working together with commonality of purpose, steadfastness of spirit, calmness of deliberation, strength of determination, and wisdom of political maturity.  It is also one of solid, thoughtful leadership from Mark Knuepfer (Faculty Senate president), Ellen Carnaghan (convener and leader of the Ad Hoc Strategy Committee), Elizabeth Ramsey (founder of the Students for No Confidence Facebook site) and numerous others.  This would not have happened without them.

"It will be a major effort for a search committee to come up with a set of appropriate criteria.  I would urge the search committee to include an explicit and heart-felt commitment to shared governance among those criteria, as well as a bias in favor of transparency."

Tim Lomperis, political science professor:  "As a member of the Rebel Alliance, we are just thrilled with this news. It does ultimately mean that in America power truly does lie with the people!

"The friction with the faculty has been endemic, and his latest set of proposals related to faculty evaluation, including the abolition of tenure, was the straw that broke the camel's back.

"He did a lot of good, but he lost touch with the core mission of the university. He began to think he was Saint Louis University, and was answerable to no one. His ego almost destroyed the university."

Tim Flynn, a 1972 SLU graduate who has siblings with the degrees from the university and two children who are students there now, said the university means a great deal to him -- so much that while he respects what Biondi has done as president, he recognized that it was time for a change of leadership at the top.

"I don't want the university to suffer because of one person," Flynn told the Beacon. "No one person is bigger than the institution there."

Flynn, who lives in Overland Park, Kan., said he has kept track of the turmoil between Biondi and faculty and students, and he suspects that "the truth is somewhere in the middle." He said he and his siblings are all donors to SLU, and the recent strife has not changed that.

"I'm not giving to Father Biondi," he said. "I'm giving to the university. I don't like the negative publicity the school has gotten, but each department operates on an independent basis. Father Biondi can't be in there telling people what to do every minute of every day. It doesn't work that way. I would not give if I felt the university was going in the wrong direction."

Flynn said he is under no illusions that Biondi's decision to retire was made without influence from board members and others.

"Did he resign on his own?" he said. "Heck no. We all know that he didn't. But let him take the high road out. I'm not saying he's a bad guy. His time just came. No one gains from the ugliness. It's time to move on. Give him the respect he has earned, and allow him to keep his dignity."

Word of Biondi's decision to leave the presidency came four days after he failed to attend a Faculty Senate meeting, with Brouster. At that meeting, the senate adopted a resolution calling on him and whoever is chosen the new chairman of the board to attend a special senate meeting on May 14.

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