Inside Report for Dec. 28, 2012

LSU’s search for a new president took a twist, albeit kind of a low-key one, earlier this month when the ad for the position appeared on the Chronicle of Higher Education website.

The ad is standard in that it gives a brief rundown of the LSU system, makes interested candidates aware of the top-down reorganization LSU is currently going through, and then lists some of the character traits necessary to become the university’s next president.

Among the qualities listed are “unquestioned integrity” and “exemplary interpersonal and communication skills.” But there was no requirement that candidates have a background in academics.

By leaving out that requirement, the LSU Board of Supervisors appears to have quietly settled on hiring a so-called “nontraditional” candidate — a candidate more familiar with the world of business, rather than the world of academia.

The debate over a traditional versus a nontraditional candidate has been going on publicly at least since August when, during a board retreat, LSU Faculty Senate President Kevin Cope made it clear that the faculty would be upset with any candidate they consider not sufficiently academic.

Back then, Cope said the faculty would be “demoralized” should the board decide to install a businessman to run LSU’s multibillion-dollar network of academic campuses, hospitals and research facilities.

Recently, Cope called the ad “extremely unfortunate.”

“The board has made efforts lately to seek faculty input, so they know that having someone with an academic background was our No. 1 priority. It’s shocking that they would so quickly dismiss our top priority,” Cope said. “It’s also extremely unfortunate that at an institution whose mission is to provide education, the board feels that having academic credentials is secondary.”

With announcement of LSU’s next president not expected until June, the faculty and the board will have time to hash out differences.

But if the next president comes from the business community, maybe the faculty will learn to love him or her, if the new president demonstrates a penchant for raising money.

State funding for higher education has been slashed by more than $426 million in the past four years in order for Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature to balance state budgets.

State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell said, nationally, about one in 10 university systems has a nontraditional leader.

“Institutions at different times in their history have to decide what they need in leadership,” he said.

Barry Erwin, head of the Council for A Better Louisiana, which lobbies on public policy, said bringing in someone to rub shoulders with donors isn’t necessarily a bad thing provided an institution has a “strong No. 2” to handle the academics.

Most accounts suggest that people at LSU are pretty happy with their current No. 2, Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Stuart Bell, Erwin said.

“The vast majority of university presidents have strong academic backgrounds, but it’s kind of a new world out there and you have to reinvent yourself,” Erwin said. “There’s a school of thought that says you’re not going to reinvent yourself if you keep getting people from the same place.”

LSU’s Presidential Search Committee Chairman Blake Chatelain said Cope and others may be reading too much into the ad.

“We’ve certainly discussed that, ideally, the candidate would have a strong academic background. But we also wanted to cast as wide a net as possible,” Chatelain said. “We’re willing to entertain a nontraditional candidate if it’s the right fit, but ideally we’ll find someone with a strong academic background who’s a proven innovator, collaborator and fundraiser.”

Koran Addo covers higher education for The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is kaddo@theadvocate.com.