James Gill: Oh, the humanities; Sartisky exits LEH

Amid all the speculation over Michael Sartisky’s abrupt removal as president of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, one theory we can probably discount.

When a public figure gets canned after taking issue with Gov. Bobby Jindal, it is only natural to suspect a connection. But that does not appear to be the case here. Experience suggests that, if Jindal wanted Sartisky canned, he’d have made no bones about it.

In any case, although gubernatorial influence may extend to every nook and cranny, Jindal has no control over LEH, especially after cutting off its state grants. Sartisky’s main lament recently has been that the state yanked his $2 million a year, whilst squandering a fortune in subsidies for professional sports franchises. But calling Jindal a philistine is water off a duck’s back; it may even be good for his poll numbers.

The puzzlement is not just why Sartisky was fired, but why it was done in such a peremptory fashion. LEH board Chairman Michael Bernstein might as well have stuck a “Sue Me” sign on his back; Sartisky, who led the LEH for 31 years and made it into a cultural beacon, has pots of money and a litigious history.

Still, Bernstein is too smart — he is provost at Tulane — not to have weighed all the consequences. And this was not a hasty decision. Sartisky has now revealed that he has been suspended since the day after Christmas.

The LEH board presumably figures Sartisky’s offense was so grievous that he would be too embarrassed to have it exposed in the course of litigation. As to what that offense was, neither side will offer a clue.

But it is highly unusual for a veteran top dog to be so unceremoniously dumped. Even when serious misconduct has occurred, a fig leaf is generally arranged. So-and-so is resigning to take on fresh challenges, spend more time with his family or some such folderol. The LEH board just up and announced Sartisky’s contract had been canceled.

In a statement issued in response, Sartisky claimed his suspension came only a month after the board had approved a plan for him to remain at his post for two years and then become “president emeritus” for two more before retiring. That “succession plan” had been drawn as part of the belt-tightening that followed the loss of the state grants and another $1 million a year from the feds, according to Sartisky.

Yet, apparently, as the result of some transgression that occurred, or came to light, during Advent, Sartisky was out the door.

After so many years at the LEH helm, Sartisky has his share of detractors, and some of them theorize he was canned for being a pompous ass. How ridiculous. If that were the reason, he’d have been canned years ago.

It’s easy to see how the impression arose in some quarters that Sartisky is a bit of a narcissist. Not only does he like to refer to himself in the third person, but he won’t let anyone forget that he has a Ph.D. Right now he doesn’t know what his next move will be, or, as his statement has it, “At this juncture Dr. Sartisky is considering his options.”

He is certainly entitled to look back on his career with some satisfaction and, indeed, does so in his statement. The LEH, when he took over, had a staff of three but grew under his leadership into “the largest state humanities program in the country in terms of operating budget, assets and program impact with total projects exceeding $70 million.” As editor of the LEH magazine Cultural Vistas, he has been one of the state’s most prominent champions of the arts and has nurtured countless creative souls through the grants programs he administered.

He writes that “without any advance warning Dr. Sartisky was suspended by LEH Chairman Michael Bernstein.” For some reason Sartisky forgot that Bernstein has a Ph. D., too, and reserved the “Dr.” title for himself. But then he was pretty miffed because, following his suspension, and “contrary to LEH Bylaws and Personnel Policies, Dr. Sartisky was not permitted to meet with the LEH board and the only document he has been provided is a letter of termination.”

That was a pretty ignominious exit. It has left us all scratching our heads.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.