LONG BEACH, Calif . — When he first became president of California State University Long Beach in 2005, the talk was that F. King Alexander wasn’t qualified to run the institution of more than 30,000 people.
But that view changed, according to people such as former three-term Long Beach Mayor Beverly O’Neill and Long Beach fundraising chief Andrea Taylor.
“When he was hired, people were intent on not liking him. His predecessor had a warm presence. King had a different personality,” Taylor said. “It’s a credit to him that he could succeed here. It’s not like the campus decided to embrace him. He earned that campus and community respect.”
Alexander steps into the LSU presidency Monday. He was selected amid controversy over a secretive search process and was immediately attacked by a faculty leader who questioned his qualifications. But perhaps his biggest challenge will be bruising battles over money for higher education.
People who know Alexander well say he’s proud of a California tax hike he lobbied for and was an unabashed supporter of federal stimulus money. He is coming to a state where the governor categorically opposes any tax increases and where much of the population castigates President Barack Obama as an overspending liberal.
For his part, Alexander says he wants the state “to set its sights high.” He wants LSU to focus on the areas where it can lead the nation. He wants more people to earn college degrees — particularly working-class students and minorities — and he doesn’t want it paid for on the backs of students.
His record shows he has no reservations about asking for more state funding to guide students through to graduation. And he says he’s perfectly willing to pursue federal funding if states continue to “abandon” their colleges and universities.
The people who know him say Alexander isn’t at all naïve. They say he understands the challenges in advancing his agenda in deep-red Louisiana beginning this week.
And the politicians, businessmen and fellow academics who have dealt with him predict Alexander will succeed because he is a pragmatist.
Even some of his critics don’t doubt his effectiveness. While they suggest he’s more interested in becoming a national player — perhaps a future U.S. secretary of education — than running a university, some also look at his policy trips to Washington, D.C., and his rapport with President Obama and grudgingly admit he’s good at what he does.
On the Long Beach campus last week, Alexander sounded confident in his ability to get people to fall in line. He said “it’s all about building relationships.”
“When educated people share information, including the consequences of going in this direction versus the consequences of going in that direction, nine times out of 10, they come to the same conclusion,” he said. “It’s not rocket science.”
A day later, inside the Long Beach student union, a handful of university employees and a few student government leaders talked about Alexander’s political skills.
They credit him with helping convince Congress to pass a so-called “maintenance of effort” provision warning states that cutting higher education funding too far would risk losing millions in federal stimulus dollars.
They also talked about his very public lobbying to get California’s Proposition 30 passed — a $6 billion annual tax hike that Alexander argued would keep the state from making drastic cuts to higher education.
California voters approved “Prop. 30” in 2012, raising sales taxes by ¼ cent for four years and increasing personal income taxes on earnings over $250,000 for seven years. Long Beach Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Randy Gordon said he will remember Alexander and his colleagues in the K-12 and community college systems for convincing Chamber leadership not to oppose the tax.
“Our organization almost never supports a tax increase. If anything, we should’ve opposed Prop. 30. Our members expected that; it would’ve been the Chamber thing to do,” Gordon said. “But they painted such a tragic picture of what would happen if it didn’t pass, we didn’t oppose it. We stayed neutral.”
When Alexander arrives in Baton Rouge he will take over an institution transforming from a system of independent academic campuses, an agricultural center, a law school, hospitals, clinics and a biomedical research center into a consolidated university, which even its fiercest supporters recognize is middle-of-the road academically.
By many accounts, LSU is reeling from year-after-year state budget cuts, low faculty morale and significant turnover at key positions. When Alexander’s hiring was announced in late March, LSU Faculty Senate President Kevin Cope was particularly harsh. He questioned if Alexander is qualified to run a major research university and suggested the LSU Board of Supervisors couldn’t find anyone better.
But Alexander has faced such opposition before. There were cries of nepotism when he succeeded his father, Kern Alexander, as president of Kentucky’s Murray State University in 2001. A faculty poll was 67-3 against hiring him for the job, and the school’s Faculty Senate condemned the search process that landed him the position.
Much of that criticism had faded by the time he left. Murray State history professor Terry Strieter voted against hiring Alexander. Later, after Alexander accepted the position in Long Beach, the Associated Press quoted Strieter as an Alexander supporter: “The faculty sentiment is just about universal that King is the best president anybody can remember.”
A native of Louisville, Ky., Alexander, 49, was raised in Gainesville, Fla. His first name, Fieldon, comes from a great uncle, but he goes by his middle name, King, which he got from his maternal grandfather Burl King Hammack, a barbershop owner in Paint Lick, Ky.
A former college athlete who briefly played professional basketball overseas for the Wadford Rebels in northern London, Alexander later turned his focus to academia, studying at Oxford University before eventually catching on as a faculty member at the University of Illinois. From there, Alexander took the big and improbable leap from an associate professor for higher education into the presidency at Murray State.
Earlier this month, just a few days away from moving his wife Shennette and their three daughters from Long Beach to Baton Rouge, Alexander bristled at the suggestion that his career took off because of his father.
“I didn’t want the Murray State job,” Alexander said. “I turned down an interview.”
But the Murray State board was persistent enough, he said, to convince him to sit down for a meeting and later accept the job. At the time, Alexander was mourning the death of his first wife Elizabeth and raising two young daughters by himself.
“The reason I took the job was because it was incredibly hard for me to stay in Champagne-Urbana, Illinois because I lost my wife to breast cancer a year before,” he said.
Regarded at Murray State and later at Long Beach as more student-friendly than a typical university president, Alexander says part of his philosophy for wanting to increase access to higher education stems from watching his teammates on the University of Wisconsin basketball team struggle financially.
Jonathon Bolin, vice president of the CSU Long Beach student government association, says Alexander has come to be known by students as “the cool old guy” who plays pickup basketball with them several times a week at the university’s recreational center.
Longtime higher education executive Tom Layzell, a former interim president of the University of Louisiana System, got to know Alexander more than a decade ago while president of Kentucky’s higher education board.
Layzell said that at Murray State, Alexander was known for reaching out to struggling students, calling them at home when they started missing classes and trying to get them back in school. Alexander later took the same idea and turned it into Project Greenlight in Long Beach, where student advisers actively tracked students who started drifting away from school and helped convince them to return.
“We clearly knew what we had to do with Project Greenlight,” Alexander said. “We saved almost 600 students in the last seven years who would’ve been college dropouts, who are now college graduates.”
Giving one of his last tours of the Long Beach campus last week, Alexander stopped outside the school’s new Hall of Science building, a facility that was almost never built. The California Legislature was supposed to finance the facility but didn’t follow through once the economy crashed. Alexander points to the building and calls it an example of the federal stimulus working the way it was supposed to.
“The state was not going to continue the project, we had already knocked down our old building, so now we’re sitting here with a hole in the ground,” Alexander said. “$110 million in stimulus saved this building. We lobbied hard for it and it kept 350 construction workers employed and it saved hundreds of lecturer and teaching jobs.”
In leaving Long Beach, Alexander is also leaving behind some ugliness directed at him from a handful of faculty members, most notably film professor Brian Alan Lane. He is a Hollywood screenwriter and the author of blog posts calling Alexander a “thug.” Lane recently reached a non-cash settlement to part ways with the university in February. Neither Alexander nor Lane would elaborate much publicly on their dispute.
Reactions to Alexander’s departure are mixed elsewhere on campus.
Liberal studies professor Dan O’Connor leads the university’s Academic Senate, a group representing faculty, administrators and staff. O’Connor said Alexander’s legacy will be that he managed to move CSU Long Beach forward — increasing the number of applicants and graduates — during California’s budget crisis.
Douglas Domingo-Foraste, vice president of the university’s teachers union, said that overall the faculty thinks of Alexander as “a nice guy,” if a little aloof.
“I think he genuinely cares about seeing that students can get an education at a reasonable price, ... but I don’t think the faculty was devastated that he was leaving,” Domingo-Foraste said. “I think with most faculty, it was a big shrug.”
Others in town are more enthusiastic about Alexander. Longtime Southern California newspaper columnist Doug Krikorian moves in some of the same social circles as Alexander and predicts he will quickly get over the “cultural shock” of leaving Long Beach for Baton Rouge and do fine at LSU.
“He’s not going to go in there and try to be the new sheriff in town; that’s not him. He’s going to be practical because he’s not stubborn and he’s not stupid. There’s a correlation between stubbornness and stupidity,” Krikorian said. “He’s a bright man, and bright men know how to make good decisions.”
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