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SLU faculty want solid role in choice of new president

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 5, 2013 - The Saint Louis University campus barely had time to digest the news that the Rev. Lawrence Biondi plans to leave after more than 25 years as president before its attention turned to the next issues:

Who will the new president be? What qualities should she or he have? How will the search process unfold? Whose voices will be heard? The university has given no details of how the search will proceed.

After months of criticism from faculty and students, including no-confidence votes that called on the SLU board of trustees to oust Biondi, 74, from his job, the president shifted suddenly Saturday night from defending his administration and the decisions it has made to acknowledging that it’s time for him to step aside.

He told a $1,000-a-plate gala celebrating his tenure:

“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.”

In a statement released Monday, the university gave a few more details about Biondi's departure.

"Following his announcement to the Board of Trustees on Saturday," it said, "the Board passed a resolution expressing its desire that Father Biondi continue as president until such time as his retirement and a successor is in place.

"The search process is expected to begin this fall. J. Joe Adorjan, chairman-elect of the SLU Board of Trustees, said plans for the search process will be developed and communicated to the University community in the weeks and months ahead."

Biondi's announcement Saturday night was a surprise to many, though some members of the faculty had anticipated Biondi’s impending departure and cited it as a reason that he declined to appear as scheduled at a meeting of the Faculty Senate last week.

Others point warily to the careful wording of his announcement – he said he has asked the board of trustees to begin this fall the process of finding his successor – with concern that his influence may not be totally absent from the SLU campus in the future.

“Father Biondi has NOT resigned,” Bonnie Wilson, an associate professor of economics, wrote in an email. “Father Biondi has announced his INTENTION to retire, not his retirement.

“Perhaps the powers and authorities of the president will soon be effectively transferred to someone else, and Father Biondi will remain president in title only. Or perhaps actual retirement is imminent. It is conceivable though that Father Biondi fully intends to continue as 'full' president for some time -- a year or even more, perhaps.”

And, she noted, with J. Joe Adorjan as the new chairman and Patrick Sly as vice chairman of the board, those who have been in Biondi’s corner during his standoff with faculty and student groups will be calling the shots as the search process begins. The university said Saturday night that it would have no further comment on the board, its members or on the process to replace Biondi.

“Guarding the door to the Board of Trustees,” Wilson wrote, “are now two men who appear to know of, understand and approve of the way SLU has been managed. These two men are known for their dismissive remarks and attitudes toward students and faculty. Status quo thus seems a distinct possibility.”

Mark Knuepfer, a professor in SLU’s department of pharmacological and physiological science who led the Faculty Senate during the recent months of turmoil, worried about the toll that the standoff with Biondi might have on the university.

“I cannot celebrate because of the way this process unfolded,” he wrote in an email. “It has hurt the university and the legacy of an icon that will remain a key part of the history of SLU forever.  We cannot forget what Father Biondi has given to develop the university yet his continued leadership could be detrimental to the university. The best solution is to begin immediately to find an appropriate leader.”

With that new leadership, Knuepfer added, the wounds suffered in recent months can begin to heal.

“I believe that we can rebuild trust with new leadership. We are in a great position to start a new era in the history of the university. I encourage all of those with ties to Saint Louis University to help us celebrate our 200th anniversary with a vision to make us the best Catholic university in the country. We are ready for a new beginning.”

How will the search be conducted?

A big part of that healing will depend on how the search for Biondi’s replacement is conducted, say faculty members who were active in the so-called no-confidence movement.

History professor Silvana Siddali said that she and her colleagues plan to consolidate the power they have gained in recent months, not sit by and let the search process unfold without them.

“My advice to the search committee is that perhaps its members ought to realize that there has been a game-changing shift at the university,” she wrote in an email.

“I don't have the time or energy to argue whether the faculty did have something to do with it (or the students, who once again appear to have been forgotten); but I can say that the faculty, students, staff, administrators, and Jesuits positively will have something to do with it.”

And, she added:

“We have become a strong, vocal, organized, energetic, and -- despite what the old wisdom may proclaim -- quite a numerous body. We remain deeply committed to shared governance. We continue to be unshakably dedicated to seeking out the truth and to restoring justice. We uphold one another as we sustain the mission of the university. 

“And if the search for new leadership is conducted by outside corporations, under cover of secrecy, and without due influence by the University's academic and spiritual leadership, then we will certainly feel it our duty to weigh in on the process.”

Wilson, the economics professor, has this advice for the executive committee of the board of trustees as it studies how Biondi’s successor will be chosen:

“Will the board engage the campus community in the search and allow participation in the process that identifies the best candidate? I hope the EC of the board understands the need for an open and transparent search that will identify the best candidate for SLU.

“The next president of SLU deserves and needs to be legitimately chosen and embraced by the campus community, so that his or her work and efforts are given the very best chance to succeed.”

Because the debate over shared governance – a mandate that important decisions be made not by the president alone but by faculty as well – has played such a central role in the the recent dispute at SLU, Wilson said fundamental changes are needed.

“Our current governance structure consists of highly concentrated and centralized power structures that isolate decision-makers from vital information and create perverse incentives,” she wrote.

“We must design a governance system that does not rely on a few (or a single) good men and women to run it. The governance system must make use of all men and women at SLU -- the entire campus community. Such a system will require tearing down power structures that currently exist. That will not be an easy task to accomplish.”

A campus transformed

Besides the role and authority of the new president, also being debated at SLU is what Biondi’s legacy will be, and how it might be affected by the conditions that led up to his announcement Saturday night.

For Michael Wolff, the newly named dean of the law school who was at the university before Biondi came, then returned after a stint on the Missouri Supreme Court, the president’s impact has been clear.

“I think what should be remembered was the transformation of the campus,” Wolff said in an interview. “This might not be the best way to put it, but the neighborhood was not in particularly good condition when he got there. The campus was kind of a slum.... He has transformed the university.

“One way to measure whether somebody has been a success or not is whether he or she left a place better than when he or she got there. By that measure, he’s been an immensely successful president.”

Now that physical changes have been made, Wolff said, the new president should have a different focus.

“I’m not sure they will be looking for somebody who is going to build up and transform the campus,” he said. “That’s been done. They probably will be looking for somebody who will spend a good deal of his or her time on academic leadership.

“The university is in much better shape academically than it was 25 years ago, and I think it has got the infrastructure in place to improve on that substantially. It’s a very strong university, from the standpoint of its enrollment, the programs it has and the qualifications of the faculty and the graduates it produces.”

So will Biondi’s legacy be marred by the way his exit came about? Wolff doesn’t think so.

“Everybody knows,” he said, “that when you stay a long time, your friends come and go and your detractors accumulate.”

Record of accomplishment

While the skills, outlook and resume of the new SLU president are still unknown, the university made certain that Biondi’s accomplishments during his tenure were front and center as he announced his intention to depart.

Among those included in the news release that summarized his speech Saturday night:

  • Fundraising and capital campaigns totaling more than $785 million
  • Investment of $850 million in improvements, enhancements and expansions.
  • Construction of the $82 million on-campus Chaifetz Arena
  • An increase in the size of SLU's midtown campus to 268 acres with 131 buildings, from 113 acres with 62 buildings.
  • Growth of SLU’s endowment to $970 million as of last month from $93 million in 1987.
  • The increase of full-time ranked faculty from 725 to 1,390.
  • An increase in the number of endowed chairs and professorships at the University from 16 to 65.
  • Reduction of the student-faculty ratio to 12-to-1 and reduction of the average class size to 24.4 students.
  • Establishment of new academic, service, leadership and diversity scholarships
  • An increase of the average ACT score of entering freshmen from 22.7 in 1987 to 27.2 in 2012.

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