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Help Wanted: SLU forum outlines qualities wanted in new president

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Help Wanted:

Midwestern Jesuit university seeking new president. The leading candidate needs to be scholarly, collaborative and respectful of colleagues, able to resist a corporate attitude but still be skillful in raising money, recognize and deal with the coming crisis in higher education, handle disagreement without being disagreeable. President does not have to be a Jesuit but must appreciate, understand and be able to embody the Jesuit mission of the university.

And being trustworthy, compassionate and likable wouldn’t hurt either.

The Saint Louis University board of trustees’ job description for a successor to the Rev. Lawrence Biondi may not read exactly that way. But the three dozen members of the SLU community who attended a town hall meeting Friday on the qualities their new president should have were fairly clear about what new campus leadership should be – and what it should not be.

The Rev. John Padberg, drawing on long experience at Jesuit institutions -- including his role on the search committee that found the current president of Georgetown, John DeGioia, the school’s first non-Jesuit leader – summed it up this way:
“Someone who can induce trust that he is doing a good job, doing the best job he can, and wants to find out from the rest of the university how he might do a better job.”

Biondi announced last Saturday night, at a gala celebrating his 25 years as president, that he had asked the board to begin searching for his replacement. J. Joe Adorjan, who was elected to his third stint as president of SLU’s board earlier that day, has said he wants the university to take its time, look at the experience of other schools and employ their best practices in the search.

He told the Beacon that he wants to make sure SLU chooses the best candidate for the job, whether or not that person is a Jesuit, and wants to make sure the new president has experience not only in higher education but in health care, and he knows how to raise money.

Those attributes were read to the forum by organizer Bonnie Wilson, a professor in the economics department, as an indication of how tough the search might be.

Steve Harris, a professor of mathematics and chair of the campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors, agreed, and he added one more dimension.

“I see tensions here that are going to make it very difficult to find someone,” he said. “I think Mr. Adorjan’s tripartite description is very apt. I think those are three excellent qualities.

“But what we are talking about most here is a moral dimension. I can’t say which of those four is more important than the others. I think they are all very important. You have to recognize it’s going to be a difficult thing to find someone who has expertise in all four dimensions.”

Wilson began the session by emphasizing the university’s mission:
“the pursuit of truth for the greater glory of God and for the service of humanity. The university seeks excellence in the fulfillment of its corporate purposes of teaching, research, health care and service to the community.”

To help meet those goals, she said, “we will be listening carefully to the entire campus community. In the midst of the cacophony of voices that are sure to be heard, may we listen to the wisdom those voices reveal."

Those who spoke up seemed divided on the need for a Jesuit as president, as opposed to having the qualities needed to fulfill the Jesuit mission. Philosophy professor Greg Beabout stressed what he called a pastoral quality.

“The person should be nice,” he said, “someone that people can get along with. That is a quality I would like to have in the next president.”

Collegiality is also important, said Kathryn Kuhn, professor of sociology and anthropology, someone who is willing to draw on the abundant expertise among faculty, staff and students to answer questions he or she is not sure about.

The Rev. Joseph Tetlow, another Jesuit with long experience on campus, emphasized the need for a scholar to lead what should be first and foremost a scholarly institution.

“You’re looking for someone that the faculty wants to have as a faculty member,” he said. “If the president becomes separate from the faculty, he becomes separate from what he is.”

But that scholarship should be matched by compassion, Tetlow added, saying:

“The president needs to not be able to sleep at night when he finds out that some of his people are not being paid well.”

Padberg recalled an institution where, at the start of every board meeting, the president would hold up a book or article written by a faculty member, to remind everyone present that “this is what we are all about.”

Some people expressed concern that because Biondi will be president for a while until his successor is found – the Beacon found that the average presidential search at a Jesuit school lasts 232 days -- he may take actions against people who led the movement against him, including no-confidence votes by faculty and student groups.

Padberg said he didn’t think that would occur.

“He certainly will be under a microscope, there’s no question about that,” he said. “I think there are people on the board who would let him know that is not acceptable.”

Asking about next steps, members of the forum said they would like to see similar meetings held as the search process moves along. And everyone seemed to agree that Adorjan’s view of a lengthy, deliberate process is likely to be the case.

“Really difficult and hard work lies ahead of us,” Wilson said.

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