It’s Thursday morning, and outgoing LSU System President William Jenkins is sitting in his office overlooking the LSU lakes for perhaps the last time.
The bookshelves are nearly empty, and the longtime administrator is spending his last day on campus reflecting on a career that he never expected to have. In a higher education career spanning 35 years, the Atlantic Ocean and multiple college campuses, Jenkins’ legacy at LSU is an unusual one.
He’s come out of retirement multiple times when asked to take the place of some other departing executive. Most recently, LSU’s Board of Supervisors lured Jenkins away from his retirement homestead in the Dallas-Fort Worth area to fill the role of system president immediately after the April 2012 firing of then-President John Lombardi.
Roughly four months later, Jenkins took on the added role of Baton Rouge chancellor when Michael Martin left for Colorado State University.
In all, Jenkins has served as system president twice and chancellor three times.
At 76, with 11 grandchildren to indulge, Jenkins says he expects this past 14-month stint in Baton Rouge to be his last.
He also says the past 14 months have been some of the toughest while some of the most promising in memory.
“It’s been very difficult with the fiscal challenges in the state, but it’s also been a time where we’ve broken ground on what the new LSU configuration is going to be,” Jenkins said. “Perhaps my only regret is I’m going to miss the transformational changes in higher education that are going to take place in the country and possibly the world.”
Jenkins has spent much of the past year talking up the need for the university to go “all in” on online education; overseeing LSU’s transformation from a jumble of academic campuses and professional schools to a consolidated university; and a move to turn over LSU’s Charity hospitals to private partners.
At the same time, LSU absorbed a fifth straight year of state budget cuts, a downturn in research productivity and more of the roughly 140 to 150 faculty departures that have taken place over the past five years.
“LSU is becoming a farm club for faculty,” Jenkins said. “That’s always been something I’ve been terrified of.”
And despite taking a lot of criticism over the handling of the hospital transition, Jenkins said he’s positive that LSU is “breaking new ground” that will allow for a more efficient system of delivering health care in the state, once all the details have been finalized.
“The truth is, I was a great admirer of the charity hospitals, but it was not financially sustainable any longer,” Jenkins said. “This is a time of great change and I don’t fear change, I never have.”
Jenkins said one of his biggest concerns upon leaving are faculty and staff salaries.
“They haven’t gotten a raise in five years and that’s a huge concern for me,” Jenkins said. “It’s been a top priority for me but it just hasn’t been possible with our financial predicament.”
Born to a New Jersey mother who had moved to South Africa and fallen in love with a hunter-farmer, Jenkins has walked a number of different paths in his life going from playing baseball at the University of Pretoria to working with livestock as a rural veterinarian in private practice for himself.
Jenkins said his love for academics and political upheaval in South Africa led him to the United States permanently, specifically the College Station area in east Texas, where Jenkins would spend 10 years at Texas A&M University.
It was in Texas where Jenkins and his wife, Peggy, raised four children before an opportunity to become dean of LSU’s veterinary school came along.
“I used to be a productive scientist,” Jenkins said. “I never expected to be in administration. Becoming dean was the extent of my early aspirations. I’ve been blessed in so many ways.”
Southern University System President Ronald Mason frequently appeared next to Jenkins as the state’s higher education leaders testified in front of the state Legislature.
“He was a pleasure to work with; a true professional,” Mason said Thursday. “I learned a lot in the short time I worked with him.”
After a short vacation with family, Jenkins said he will return to Texas, where he will eventually finish the three books he’s been writing simultaneously: one on his ideas of management and leadership; another book telling the stories of people who responded to the challenges in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; and an autobiography.
In the immediate future, the man who sometimes refers to himself as “just an old country veterinarian” says he will likely spend some time at the University of Dallas hosting seminars and helping with strategic planning.
“After all these years, it’s hard for me not to have some type of campus affiliation,” Jenkins said.