Eight weeks into his new job as LSU’s president, and King Alexander finds himself sweating and surrounded by freshmen. It’s four days before Monday’s start of classes, and he is walking from one part of campus to another carrying boxes, helping students move into their dorm rooms.
It’s one of the traditions he brought over from his previous stop as president of California State University in Long Beach. It’s also one of those things that is supposed to get noticed.
In his brief time in Baton Rouge, Alexander has done a few other things that have drawn attention. His most dramatic move so far was announcing pay raises and one-time salary bumps of up to 4 percent of the vast majority of LSU employees statewide.
Alexander said he needed to do something to keep staff — mostly faculty — from leaving for other institutions. More than 200 faculty members have left since 2008. Many of the ones who’ve stayed behind said the campus needed the morale boost.
LSU Faculty Senate President Kevin Cope, in particular, is a frequent critic of LSU’s decision makers and the board that oversees them. But he said, so far, Alexander has made the right moves.
“I’d give him a 92 on a 100-point scale,” Cope said. “He’s much better than most people expected. We’ve got to give him credit on getting out there and reaching out to faculty.”
But Cope said a few bright moments in the early weeks won’t be enough for Alexander to fully ingratiate himself with faculty.
“He needs to show that he’s independent of the board,” Cope said. “He needs to show that he won’t be hiring technocrats and the governor’s cast-offs.”
Alexander has been getting high marks throughout LSU’s network of academic campuses, research centers, clinics and hospitals.
One of his first moves after arriving in Louisiana in late June was his trip to Crowley to visit the LSU AgCenter’s Rice Research Station.
Steve Linscombe runs the research station. He described Alexander’s visit as genuine.
“To the best of my recollection, he’s the first president that’s been here, and I’ve been here 30 years,” Linscombe said. “He did his homework. He knew about what we do and he knew about the Louisiana rice industry. As far as I’m concerned, he was very impressive.”
On another trip, Alexander went to Lafayette to see Louisiana’s school superintendents during their summer conference.
Ascension Parish Superintendent Patrice Pujol said Alexander was particularly interested in partnering with school districts on ways to make students better prepared for college.
“He talked about opportunities for research at the university-level to better inform our practices in K-12,” Pujol said. “He also talked about getting some of our kids to engage with professors, to kind of, whet their appetite,” for college.
Central Superintendent Michael Faulk said Alexander’s staff has already begun reaching out to school districts about potential partnerships.
Alexander has said he would like to transfer the successful Long Beach Promise program to Louisiana.
The program he helped shape was one of his career achievements in California. It starts as a partnership between families and the schools to create an individualized plan, or pathway, for each child’s graduation, starting at the elementary school level and continuing through the senior year of high school. Students who meet their targets gain automatic admission into Cal State Long Beach or a tuition-free semester at Long Beach Community College. The promise is a pledge for all three institutions to assist students and families with the requirements through outreach services from the sixth grade through the college transition.
“I would love to do something like that here,” Alexander said. “We are here as a partner in the public school mission of this state. Our graduation rate doesn’t start on move-in day; it starts in kindergarten.”
Collaboration is one of Alexander’s buzzwords. From his office last week, he said one of his first priorities is to “build a degree of collaboration and trust” among the LSU campuses.
“We have gone five-plus years in some cases without working closely together,” he said. “We should be coordinating our state legislative efforts and our federal efforts, because right now, they’re all over the map.”
For instance, Alexander said LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center, one of the country’s leading obesity research facilities, should be working with the food scientists within the AgCenter to take advantage of federal research grants, especially in a state with high incidences of diabetes and heart disease.
“That type of collaboration hasn’t really been going on,” he said.
For all of Alexander’s efforts on being visible around the state, John Woodard, president of the Baton Rouge campus’ student body, said he’s also been accessible to students.
Alexander recently hosted student leaders at a high-level public safety briefing as first responders mapped out what to do in case of certain emergencies.
“In the past, students didn’t really get shown what’s going on,” Woodard said adding that Alexander has been increasing student access to the inner workings of the administration.
LSU Law Center Chancellor Jack Weiss had a similar take.
“I think it’s a very positive development that he’s shown not only a willingness, but an interest, in discussing with chancellors the critical issues facing not only our campuses, but the university as a whole.”
Weiss also gave the new president high marks in community outreach. Alexander has already agreed to sit on the Baton Rouge Area Chamber’s Board of Directors, a position his previous two predecessors also accepted.
BRAC chief executive officer Adam Knapp said it appears that Alexander has his priorities right.
“He’s building and improving on the morale and he’s getting rid of the infighting between campuses,” Knapp said. “BRAC has long had a close partnership with LSU. ... We’re excited for his leadership.”
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