The Sacred & the Profane

Father Lawrence Biondi is praised for revamping the campus of St. Louis University and boosting its endowment. But the enemies he's made along the way claim that behind the fountains, statues and donations stands a Jesuit bully who's more interested in th

Hundreds of St. Louis University students turned out on that balmy spring Wednesday in the quadrangle to carry signs, march in protest, chant derogatory rhyming refrains and listen to inflammatory speeches -- in short, to show that they were mighty upset. If an unsuspecting student had walked out of Pius XII Memorial Library not knowing what spurred the controversy, he might have thought he had walked onto the set of a made-for-TV movie about campus unrest in the '60s. But the chants weren't profane, as in "2-4-6-8, fuck the flag and smash the state"; nor were they political, as in "Hell no, we won't go."

Though at first glance it may have seemed like revolution was in the air, what really was evident was widespread irritation. The frustration was not over the inadequacy of welfare reform, the NATO bombing of Serbia or atrocities in East Timor; it was over something far more immediate and mundane -- a steep increase in parking fees. Beyond that, it became clear by talking to a few of those gathered that the bulk of the annoyance was with one man, a priest, a Jesuit: St. Louis University president Lawrence Biondi, S.J.

"Hey-hey, ho-ho, Father Biondi has got to go."
The students chanted it with gusto, and though the spiking of parking fees provided the trigger mechanism, clearly the target of the uprising was Biondi, who's been president at SLU since 1987. He had irritated some by selling St. Louis University Hospital to a for-profit chain; then he stirred up students by trying to rein in the student newspaper's freewheeling criticism of the administration by changing the paper's charter. The wacky addition of two outdoor wading pools and palm trees near the West Pine Gym baffled many as yet another example of the "Biondification," or over-beautification, of the campus. The virtually yearly increase in tuition, 7 percent this year, was a more tangible irritant for students, so a drastic jump in parking rates only made a costly situation worse.

Maybe this time, the sense was, Biondi had gone too far and had done too much to escape untouched.

In a break between speeches, Student Government Association (SGA) president Joe Hodes was feeling the fervor of the moment. He huddled with Glen Burleigh, a 19-year-old sophomore from Pine Bluff, Ark. Burleigh, wearing an army-fatigue coat, earlier had been holding a large sign that portrayed Biondi as Mao Tse-tung, complete with military tunic, stating, "Embrace the New Parking Increase Without Dissent."

Hodes wanted to move the SGA meeting scheduled to follow the demonstration from the smaller venue in the Pius XII Library to a larger room at the Busch Center to accommodate the growing crowd.

"Wait a minute, Glen," Hodes said, "go back and see what the St. Louis Room looks like. See if the job fair is out of there. Ask the people at the front desk if there's anything else up there, if it's available."

"They won't," Glen said hesitantly. "You have to go to Scheduling."
"We can just do it," Hodes blurted out. "Hell, we're about to vote no-confidence on upper administration -- I don't think we care what Scheduling says."

Well, the SGA meeting stayed in the smaller room in the library. And, of course, despite all the tumult and all the tirades, the riled were wrong. Biondi did "escape." A no-confidence vote on the administration was approved that night by the SGA; weeks later it was rescinded. The faculty senate talked about no-confidence but didn't put it to a vote. With a few minor alterations, the parking increases stayed in place. Meanwhile, on this last day of March and in the months that followed to the end of the school year, the students, faculty and staff had a chance to vent.

Joe Laramie, a 21-year-old junior communication major from St. Louis, was part of the marching throng holding up black-on-yellow NO CONFIDENCE signs. As he walked east toward Grand Boulevard, he offered a common take on Biondi: "He doesn't appear to have any concern for what the students or the faculty have to say. Verdicts are sort of handed down, and it's assumed they'll be accepted. It's the way that things are done, with this sort of kingly air, it seems like. I think that's what people resent -- his attitude, the way he comes across."

Up on the makeshift podium, between blaring renditions of what SGA president Hodes described as "our theme song" (Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It") Hodes read from his commentary in that week's University News: Repeal the parking increase; increase student, faculty and staff involvement in the "decision-making process"; and, oh yeah, the upper administration has lost the confidence of the university community.

But the real storm-the-Bastille rhetoric came from Gregory Beabout, a philosophy professor, who told the assembled that the problem was that decisions are "made by a few elites behind closed doors." In reference to the cryptic appearance last summer of the wading pools with accompanying foliage, Beabout triggered a loud response by asking, "When you went home last May, did you know we were going to come back to a campus with palm trees?"

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