Video: LSU Chancellor F. King Alexander reflects on his first year

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- LSU President and Chancellor F. King Alexander, photographed in front of the school's Memorial Tower. He's been on the job for a year now.
Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- LSU President and Chancellor F. King Alexander, photographed in front of the school's Memorial Tower. He's been on the job for a year now.

It's good to be king

If there’s one central theme to F. King Alexander’s first year as LSU president and chancellor, it has been unification.

He’s moving to reunite a fragmented LSU system. He’s working with leaders of other systems to develop legislative strategy.

The Board of Supervisors has supported him, as has Gov. Bobby Jindal. He’s also winning over some of his toughest critics and gaining timid appreciation from normally suspicious faculty.

“Educated people generally will make the same decisions and come to the same conclusions if the information is shared,” he said.

His main goal since he started on the job July 1, 2013: share the information, be an open book, be accessible.

“We’ve had a lot of important accomplishments,” Alexander said during an interview in his wood-paneled campus office decorated with LSU items and gifts from alumni. “We want to make sure that people know we care and their issues are our issues.”

Alexander has made dozens of trips to campuses around the state for fundraisers and other events, drawing praise from alumni. He also has been more visible in Washington, D.C., talking about issues that range from college affordability to research, and those in his inner circle say that is giving LSU more prominence off the football field.

As Alexander raced to make appearances at multiple ceremonies during spring commencement, some beaming graduates and their parents stopped him — hoping to snap a photo with a campus celebrity.

Overall, many agree the first year has been a success — or at least not as bad as some had feared.

Alexander came in under a cloud of secrecy, which automatically set off some skeptics’ alarms. The Advocate filed a lawsuit against the Board of Supervisors seeking access to records related to the search that ultimately produced Alexander as the new president and chancellor. The university’s appeal is pending. Meanwhile, the records sought, which would reveal other candidates who were considered, remain under seal with state District Judge Janice Clark.

Alexander is quick to dismiss concerns over the confidential nature of the search and any skepticism it may have created for him early on.

“I know how presidents are selected across the country,” he said.

Fundraising is up. The main LSU campus raised about $72 million during his first year. Systemwide, the figure was about $83 million, he said.

Enrollment continues to rise. The system will have about 45,000 students this fall, he said.

And graduation is also on the rise. LSU had its largest graduating class during 2013-14, and it included record numbers of women and minorities.

LSU mass communication professor and political columnist Robert Mann recently blogged about Alexander’s first year on the job, giving him high marks after raising skepticism over his hiring.

“I was wrong about him,” Mann wrote. “Even a blind miner occasionally finds a diamond. That seems to have been the case when the miners — otherwise known as the LSU Board of Supervisors — hired F. King Alexander last year as system president and chancellor of the Baton Rouge campus.”

Faculty Senate President Kevin Cope said he feels Alexander “has done a fairly competent job.”

“He has performed better in some areas than others,” Cope said. “There is a lot of undertow against which he is trying to swim.”

Alexander, 50, expressed a desire to stay at LSU and continue working to build Louisiana’s higher education.

“We’ve got an obligation,” he said.

He came to LSU from California State University at Long Beach — nearly 2,000 miles away. He previously served as president of Murray State in Kentucky — a place he feels shares “a lot of elements” with Louisiana.

“I can honestly say, Louisiana is the most unique state we’ve ever lived in,” he said. “It’s one of the friendliest places we’ve ever lived.”

Alexander said he believes the state college systems are coming together to reap successes at the state Capitol.

“We haven’t been at each other’s throats, as I’ve heard it’s been in the past,” he said. “We’ve worked together on a number of fronts already.”

Higher education leaders met together in October to develop a legislative agenda, which Alexander deemed a success this session.

“I think there was a desire to help higher education, and I think it was the collaborative efforts of higher education, coming together,” he said. “All of these students, in one shape or form, are our students.”

This year was the first time in six years that higher education didn’t take a budget hit. Schools will keep their tuition increases from the 2010 GRAD Act, and the Legislature created an additional $40 million competitive fund called the WISE fund, which universities can tap into through developing workforce development partnerships with business and industry.

LSU faculty members received raises last year, and another raise was announced last week.

New faculty hires — replacing retirees, as well as creating new positions in high-demand fields — are expected after years of cuts and sluggish growth.

“Being protected from the budget cuts and getting some additional funds can help us be a bit more aggressive in academic circles,” he said. “I’m very optimistic that hopefully we’ve turned a corner.”

Alexander said a legislative change to state retirement benefits this year, which requires colleges and universities to increase contribution rates to the Optional Retirement Plan to at least 6.2 percent, also is seen as an advantage that will help lure new faculty.

He is helping to lead realignments that will bring LSU’s Paul M. Hebert Law Center and Agricultural Center back under the flagship university — moves that have led the overall unification of the system, which had various units acting on their own, for the most part, for several years.

The system includes the main LSU campus in Baton Rouge, which will oversee the formerly separate Law Center and AgCenter; campuses in Alexandria, Eunice and Shreveport; and Health Sciences centers in New Orleans and Shreveport, as well as 10 public hospitals and more than a dozen clinics across the state.

“We’ve been a pretty fragmented university, geographically, but also in our coordination and cooperation,” Alexander said. “I think we’re much stronger when we work as a whole than when we work as separate parts.”

Alexander said he sees the LSU system’s structure — with varying campuses and research efforts spread across the state — as similar to Ohio State, Purdue or Penn State.

“By national standards, we’re much more like a flagship institution that has reached into every corner of the state,” he said.

Alexander said he has worked well with Jindal, which has been an issue for some past university leaders.

“I’ve had a very good working relationship, and I believe we will continue doing this,” he said.

And Jindal has high praise for Alexander.

“F. King Alexander has been a fantastic leader for LSU and a great partner in helping to secure additional funding for higher education this legislative session,” the governor said in a prepared statement. “The future of LSU is very bright with King Alexander at the helm.”

Alexander, the type of academic who often speaks in thoughtful, long sentences, said he appreciates that Jindal is “data-driven.”

Prior to being governor, Jindal served a brief stint as president of the University of Louisiana System, and he has degrees from Brown University and was a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford, England. Alexander earned a degree from Oxford.

The governor-appointed Board of Supervisors, which frequently has battled with campus leaders, also gave Alexander a positive review on his first year.

“Certainly, he has done a magnificent job,” Chairman Bobby Yarborough said at a recent meeting amid a round of applause from the board. “He’s had a good, successful year.”

The board is in the process of developing a formal review process for the president/chancellor role. The board hasn’t had a formal review policy but it decided to develop one in light of the merger of the president’s and chancellor titles.

Incoming Chairwoman Ann Duplessis said the policy is expected to include yearly reviews, as well as a more comprehensive evaluation every five years.

While tuition is going up at LSU — it will cost about $4,353 for nonresident fees and tuition this semester — Alexander said affordability is a priority for him as he looks to the university’s future.

“Access and affordability and completion, those are three of our major goals,” he said. “I want parents to be armed with all of the information.”

This fall, Alexander is experiencing LSU from that side: the admissions process, the parent orientation, moving a child into her first dorm room.

His daughter Kylie will be attending LSU this fall and living in Blake Hall.

Another daughter is going to the University of Wisconsin — an amusing coincidence, given that LSU opens its football season with a game against Wisconsin in Houston.

“It makes that first football game a little more interesting,” Alexander said jokingly.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of Louisiana government, follow http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.