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

An Absolute Conflict
Yes, Kim Tucci, an owner of the Pasta House restaurant chain and a member of the executive committee of SLU's board of trustees, knows Larry Biondi, and he likes him. Tucci, who sits with Biondi at Billiken basketball games and is seen as a confidant of the president, can't praise Biondi enough.

"Biondi's done a great job. The flaps are just part of the job; they go with the job," says Tucci, who also says Biondi's expansion of the campus to the east and his work shoring up the main campus has "saved" the city's central corridor. "Without St. Louis University, you can forget about it. You can take this city, fold it up, put it in an envelope and mail it somewhere else. What he did was phenomenal, joining downtown with the Central West End. He did that single-handedly."

Like others who like Biondi, Tucci thinks that most of the criticism of the SLU president is a question of style, the way he does things. Does it matter what car he drives, that he quickly joined the upscale Missouri Athletic Club when he first moved here? Is the rapid turnover in administration a result of his autocratic, brutish management demeanor, or is it just a sign of a university on the move?

The answers to those questions depend on how people see the university and what they believe it should be. As with any institution, for-profit or otherwise, public criticism of those in power carries risk. Many of those interviewed for this article spoke on the condition that their remarks not be attributed to them. A phrase used by Hodes in a University News commentary, that there was a "climate of fear" on campus, was often invoked by Biondi's critics. Even in a workplace where tenure can give a professor a sense of vague security, many fear indirect reprisals.

As for Biondi, he refused to be interviewed for this article. He returned my phone call, went off-the-record to decline the interview and then hung up mid-sentence during my entreaty as to why he should be interviewed. A follow-up letter asking for an interview went unanswered. Subsequently, even requests made to the university's PR department for basic information regarding SLU's enrollment, endowment and tuition figures were not answered.

Biondi was named president of St. Louis University in 1987, coming from Loyola University in Chicago. His academic background is in foreign languages, but the Chicago native was better known for his management than for his academics. Both at Loyola and at SLU, he was seen as a manager who spent long hours on the job examining everything from long-distance bills to budget proposals.

But for those who are tired of Biondi's act, he is painted as a profane, bombastic, self-absorbed CEO type who appears more suited for the corporate boardroom than a university where academic ideals are sometimes hard to justify on a profit-and-loss statement. To these critics, style has merged with substance.

"The way he approaches issues or questions, or the language that he uses, or the demeaning comments he makes about people, is not at all what I expected from a college president, let alone a Catholic Jesuit priest. That's the bottom line," says one faculty member. "I would hear in meetings people being brought up from the past and still being beaten down. I saw that as unnecessary and not in keeping with what the institution is supposed to be. If you read the philosophical statements about what the institution is supposed to be, or what the Jesuits stand for, there is an absolute conflict between the theory and the seen practice. That's not to suggest Father can't be very charming and very warm -- there is that side of him, but there is the other side. It is not what one should expect."

To Biondi boosters, such matters are barely worth noticing, much less mentioning. They look at the campus, which has been architecturally transformed since Biondi's arrival, and the endowment, which now totals $868 million (according to the Chronicle of Higher Education) and ranks 35th in the nation, and say, who cares about what kind of a car the president drives and whom he rubs the wrong way?

"I keep telling people, there are Christians, there are Catholics and there are Jesuits. They're not all the same," says Dr. Robert Burdge, chairman of orthopedic surgery at the university's medical school. "What other group of men have founded so many high schools and colleges in the world, outside the Jesuits? Nobody. They're some tough people to deal with." Saying that the university with the second-highest endowment among Jesuit universities has a president who can be difficult should surprise no one, Burdge says. "That's like trying to tell a CEO of some big corporation, a Chuck Knight, what to do. It's not going to happen."

Tucci calls Biondi a "superstar" and wonders where the university would be without him. He dismisses Biondi's critics on the faculty as unrealistic about what it takes to run a university. He also blames tenure for making some professors more bold than they should be.

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