Cal State leader Alexander named as LSU finalist

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Members of the audience, including LSU Faculty Senate President Kevin L. Cope, lower left, look over the résumé of LSU's sole presidential finalist, F. King Alexander, the current president of California State University Long Beach.
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Members of the audience, including LSU Faculty Senate President Kevin L. Cope, lower left, look over the résumé of LSU's sole presidential finalist, F. King Alexander, the current president of California State University Long Beach.

The LSU Board of Supervisors named F. King Alexander on Monday as its lone finalist to become the university’s next president.

Alexander holds the same position at Cal State University in Long Beach, a school of about 36,000 students, making it the third-largest university in California.

Alexander was not present at LSU’s Monday board meeting, but he was in town over the weekend and could be back in Baton Rouge as early as Thursday to meet with students, faculty and staff, LSU board members said.

He did not return a call for comment Monday. The LSU press office released a prepared statement quoting Alexander as saying: “This is an exciting period at a difficult time for higher education. LSU is positioned better than many public universities in the United States to lead the Land Grant mission into the next 50 years.”

Search Committee Chairman Blake Chatelain said he hopes to finalize a deal and have Alexander installed as LSU’s president by June.

Alexander would take the helm as the university undergoes a top-to-bottom reorganization. The LSU board voted last year to move away from its current model of separate, autonomous campuses in favor of a consolidated “flagship system,” organized under the main campus in Baton Rouge.

The effort is called LSU2015.

LSU is made up of the main campus; a law school; agricultural center; academic campuses in Alexandria, Eunice and Shreveport; health sciences center in New Orleans and Shreveport; and 10 public hospitals and related outpatient clinics around the state.

LSU board Chairman Hank Danos said the move should make LSU more efficient as the university attempts to become one of the top research universities in the country.

Alexander will also take over as president during a time of declining state support for colleges and universities and rising tuition for students.

Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature have cut state funding to higher education by $625 million over the past five years. Jindal’s proposed higher education budget for 2013-14 would increase the amount of money stripped from higher education to $1.24 billion since 2008.

The presidential position is currently open, in part, because of former President John Lombardi’s clashes with legislators and Jindal administration officials over university finances.

Lombardi was fired in late April after he bluntly accused some members of the state Legislature of trying to create a “superboard” to micromanage how Louisiana’s four college systems spend their money.

LSU board members axed Lombardi two days later, dismissing him on a 12-4 vote. They said his brash style hurt their standing with legislators and the governor.

The board tapped former System President William Jenkins to come out of retirement and fill the role on an interim basis.

As president, Alexander would be expected to put a newly reorganized LSU on the path to join the prestigious Association of American Universities, or AAU.

The 60-member, invitation-only organization is made up of the top public and private research universities in the U.S. and Canada.

Since the founding of the Nobel Prizes in 1901, 35 percent of all winners and 70 percent of winners at U.S. universities have been affiliated with an AAU institution.

Taking that leap forward will be difficult as LSU is going through downturn in research productivity, and has seen the number and the value of research grants diminish after losing several highly-regarded faculty members to other institutions.

When a university’s research funds dry up, it generally means lower placement on the National Science Foundation’s rankings, which are seen as the “gold standard” in determining a university’s academic health.

Alexander’s selection Monday was somewhat of surprise during what appeared to be a routine search committee meeting. The committee has been meeting since November.

Chatelain started off the meeting describing the process where LSU identified 100 people they were interested in, narrowed that list down to 35 “active” candidates and then cut that list down to “six or seven” people, some of whom were interviewed face-to-face.

After discussing those candidates for just under an hour in a closed-door session, Chatelain said the committee had come to a consensus.

LSU would be Alexander’s third stop as a university president. He is a Louisville, Ky. native raised in Gainesville, Fla. He’s studied political science, then educational studies before earning a doctoral degree in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Alexander took over as president at Cal State Long Beach in 2006, presiding over the period between 2009 and 2012 when the university graduated 91,000 students — the largest in school history.

Alexander also served as president at Murray State University in Murray, Ky., between 2001 and 2005.

Committee member Stephen Perry described Alexander as a very strong candidate, a “great communicator,” a “master of external affairs” and someone who will have the confidence of the faculty.

“I’m surprised about where we find ourselves ...” Perry said. “I expected this to be more of a knock-down, drag-out process. I’m amazed, surprised, gratified and excited.”

LSU Boyd Professor Thomas Klei participated in the search process. He said he was comfortable the process was legitimate and not “an automatic decision.”

LSU Board of Supervisors student member Justin Mannino also expressed confidence in Alexander. “Students will like this,” Mannino said.