ST. LOUIS (AP) -- By most discernible measures, the Rev. Lawrence Biondi’s 26-year reign as Saint Louis University’s president was an unmistakable success.
The 74-year-old Jesuit priest presided over a 42 percent increase in the student body, which now approaches 14,000. The number of full-time, tenure-track faculty has doubled, and nearly $1 billion worth of new construction and renovations helped spark a revival of the city’s Midtown neighborhood, including the $81 million Chaifetz Arena, home of the Billiken basketball team.
“It took great leadership, it took a lot of vision and a lot of guts,” said Mayor Francis Slay, a 1980 SLU law school graduate who helped fete the school president at an August unveiling of its new downtown law school building. “Few have more of those than Father Lawrence Biondi.”
That’s the public Biondi. In private, critics complain, the linguist with six college degrees and fluency in an equal number of languages ruled by fear and intimidation, stifling dissent and alienating campus members who eventually called for his resignation.
The dissent culminated in the spring 2013 semester with regular demonstrations and a pair of no-confidence votes by a faculty group and student government. Biondi, who had once hoped to remain through the school’s 2018 bicentennial, surprised friends and foes alike with a May retirement announcement. He escalated the timetable with a Sept. 1 departure, leaving for a one-year sabbatical before an expected return next year as president emeritus.
On campus, the rhythms of a new semester have largely pushed aside talk of Biondi’s legacy. The search for Biondi’s successor begins later this month, as vice president and general counsel Bill Kauffman serves as interim president.
Some of Biondi’s most vocal opponents are firmly looking forward, not to the past.
“I feel like that’s water under the bridge,” said Jane Turner, an associate professor of pathology and president of the school’s faculty senate. “I’d rather focus on the positive going forward.”
She added, “It’s a time in which we hope to heal. And we hope for a lot of positive change on campus.”
Biondi, who often sparred with the local press, did not respond to several Associated Press interview requests relayed through his assistants. In an Aug. 8 guest column for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Biondi dismissed allegations that he retaliated against outspoken professors by reducing their salary increases as the work of a “small number of dissident faculty members” who were both “self-absorbed and self-serving.”
“Enough of the drama!” he wrote. “Enough of the theater!”
An April Faculty Senate report acknowledged Biondi’s sizable contributions, including a 900 percent increase in its endowment. The report went on, though, to detail what Biondi has called his “my way or the highway” management style, which the faculty panel said tarnished its Jesuit ideals of pursuing knowledge while working to stamp out poverty, injustice, ignorance and hunger.
“He has created a culture of intimidation that destroys morale, undermines collegiality and breeds a system characterized by distrust,” they wrote.
Biondi’s departure gives Saint Louis University a chance to refine its historic mission as the school braces for 21st Century academic innovation and disruption, said Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.
Like many of its peers among the nation’s 221 Catholic colleges and universities when confronted with leadership changes, SLU’s board of trustees must now consider whether to again hire a clergy member for its top job or look outside religious circles for a lay leader.
According to the association, 61 percent of U.S. Catholic colleges and universities are now run by lay leaders. A decade ago, fewer than half had non-religious leaders.
Among the 28 members of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, seven have lay presidents—Canisius, Detroit Mercy, Georgetown, Gonzaga, LeMoyne, Loyola Marymount and St. Peter’s.
An SLU bylaw change several years ago eliminated the requirement that its president be a member of the Jesuit order. But an excessive focus on the next president’s religious affiliation—or lack thereof—would be a disservice, Galligan-Stierle said. Instead, the university needs to figure out what leadership skills its next boss must possess, and hire based on those requirements, he said.
“You’re not opting away from your Catholic identity,” he said. “You’re recognizing that what has been built has done a very fine job, so you’re looking for other strengths.”
Liz Ramsey, a second-year law student and member of SLU Students for No Confidence, said student activists are “cautious in our optimism” while waiting for details of the presidential search to unfold.
“The fact that we have not heard anything about that process yet is a little disheartening,” she said. “Our main goal wasn’t just to get Father Biondi out. It was to have real lasting change.”