Political Horizons: Choosing behind closed doors

by mark ballard

Capitol news bureau

Mark Ballard.
Mark Ballard.

From the safety of his backyard, my little rat terrier barks himself hoarse at passing joggers, presumably doctors, lawyers and other professionals. But once, when police were chasing a fugitive through the neighborhood, an officer entered the backyard with gun drawn. Scout rolled over and asked the stranger with a gun for a tummy scratch.

Last week, the LSU faculty, at least some of them, growled over the secretive selection of F. King Alexander. But they watched quietly as he became LSU System president and chancellor of the Baton Rouge campus. The LSU Board of Supervisors, mostly millionaires picked by Gov. Bobby Jindal, ignored the faculty Senate’s vote of “no confidence.”

“We didn’t get the kind of search we wanted, and we don’t know much about the candidate. On the other hand, we don’t have Stephen Moret in the position,” said LSU Faculty Senate President Kevin Cope, referring to the secretary of the state Department of Economic Development whose candidacy for the top job at LSU was widely rumored — though never confirmed.

Cope criticized the board’s conducting of the search behind closed doors, refusing to identify candidates, and naming only Alexander, president of California State University Long Beach.

“At least with the papal conclave that elected Pope Francis, we knew who the candidates were,” Cope said.

Blake Chatelain, chairman of the LSU Board’s search committee, repeatedly has defended the search and has criticized reporters for their coverage. Chatelain has said that “leading candidates” would refuse to apply for the $600,000 job if they risked being named publicly.

A quick Google news search shows more than two dozen universities have held open searches for their leadership positions during the past 18 months, complete with public interviews and comparisons of leading candidates. Cope noted that not one of those search processes engendered a vote of “no confidence” from their faculty.

William Daly, a past president of the LSU Faculty Senate, buttonholed Alexander at an event last week to tell the incoming leader that the no confidence vote was aimed at the board, not the candidate personally.

“We really did not know anything about you and that was one of the frustrations we had,” Daly said.

“I understand completely,” Alexander replied. He then blamed the press for job searches having to be conducted in secret.

Daly said, “You have to understand the history of this, we’ve actually gone through this three times before, and so the faculty is very sensitive to being dictated to.”

The first secret choice Daly referred to was Sean O’Keefe, who was forced out in 2008 after three years on the job. The second was John Lombardi, who was fired in May after five years on the job. And the third was Michael Martin, who hurriedly left for Colorado in August.

After Martin left, the board pushed out a number of LSU executives.

The real question, Bob Mann, an LSU mass communications professor wrote, in his blog last week, is whether Alexander is willing to speak frankly to power.

Michael F. Russo, an associate librarian, asked if Alexander supported the Jindal administration’s efforts to mitigate its cuts of state funds to higher education by allowing the universities to transfer that financial burden to parents and students through tuition hikes.

“One of our challenges is to get everybody to know what that means,” Alexander said. He then went on a six-minute tour of the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, better known as TOPS, and other government grants, federal tuition tax credits that help individual families.

Yes, but does he support increasing tuition at LSU?

“I haven’t seen our budgets, so I don’t know,” Alexander replied.

On the other hand, after the official meeting, Alexander knelt on the stage to look faculty members in the eye during a more-casual conversation. He answered questions about an August speech in which he said millionaires have been mislabeled as the ‘job creators.”

His comments have led to condemnation of his selection at LSU by some conservative commentators in Louisiana. For instance, Richard Garwood, who writes under the pseudonym “Sarge,” wrote that Alexander’s statement is “clearly a delusion borne of a collectivist/socialist viewpoint.”

Alexander stands by the statement, saying it was education that raised his grandfather from poverty.

“The true job creators, and perhaps the most dedicated, are those individuals who are found in classrooms – from preschool on. Education is the answer to growth,” Alexander said.

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com.