James Gill: Sartisky not the only LEH staffer to get the ax

“When I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my revolver.” So goes the famous, if very loosely translated, line from a play by Hanns Johst.

If we adopted a similar policy around here, hardly anyone would be left standing.

Boil some crawfish, gig a few frogs or even attend an illegal cockfight, and someone will have to observe that it’s all part of the culture.

Without such institutions as the Louisiana Endowment of the Humanities, we might be in danger of forgetting that the word has more highfalutin’ connotations, too.

The LEH under Michael Sartisky’s direction rose from modest beginnings to make a sterling contribution to the artistic and intellectual life of the state. Any decline in its influence should set alarm bells ringing from Ville Platte to Pointe à la Hache.

That LEH is suddenly a diminished force is beyond dispute. Sartisky was fired last month, and now three senior staffers have gotten their marching orders, too.

The LEH board chairman, Tulane Provost Michael Bernstein, puts it down to financial constraints. Sartisky says that is hogwash but declines to speculate on Bernstein’s motives. Bernstein, meanwhile, is not saying why he canned Sartistky.

The upheaval, according to Sartisky, has left only four people working on LEH’s “KnowLA: The Digital Encyclopedia of Louisiana” and its Cultural Vistas magazine. When Sartisky ran the place, those much admired publications occupied him, six staffers and a part-timer.

The bad blood between him and Bernstein can only take an even heavier toll on the LEH, for litigation now looms.

Until that plays out, what brought us to this pass may remain a mystery. Sartisky says he and Bernstein were friends until last fall and that he is “perplexed” by what he evidently views as a betrayal.

He says he hasn’t been allowed to see a report that chronicles the alleged transgressions that led to his downfall but suggests he has nothing to worry about. “Am I acting like a man who is afraid of the truth?” he asks in a lengthy news release lambasting the LEH’s “notoriously intemperate Chair.”

Whatever dark secrets may be in the report will presumably be revealed in the course of the wrongful-termination suit he promises to file. Meanwhile, Sartisky is such a nonperson in the eyes of the LEH that, although he nominated Walter Isaacson as the Humanist of the Year before he got fired, he has been banned from the ceremony at which the award will be presented next weekend.

This is all a far cry from a couple of years ago when Sartisky, who had nominated Bernstein for election to the board, regarded him not only as his friend but his “St. George.” Sartisky says he fell out of favor with then-Chairman Kevin Kelly but retained his job after Bernstein leapt to his defense.

After Bernstein ascended to the chairmanship, relations remained cordial enough for Sartisky to be given a new contract in November whereby he would remain in charge for two years, then spend two more in an “emeritus” role under a new president.

That would have required a capacity for self-effacement of which Sartisky has never been suspected, but no matter. Before the ink was dry, he was suspended for a month, then terminated.

The latest edition of Cultural Vistas is just out, and it would be a miracle if Sartisky approved. In his latest news release, he describes a column contributed by Bernstein as “a bland, ignorant statement of generalities,” which is pretty mild considering the personal animus involved.

Regardless, Cultural Vistas cannot conceivably maintain standards with little more than half its old staff.

These are indeed straitened times at LEH, which has suffered cuts in both state and federal grants, but Sartisky maintains he had a plan to avoid layoffs by dipping into cash reserves until the crisis passes. Bernstein figured retrenchment was the more prudent course and reached for his ax.

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