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

"The people you're going to get that from are the literati," says Tucci of the criticism. "You get tenured professors to speak against him. I don't believe in tenure. It's the biggest joke in the whole world. Tenureship is ridiculous. They get away with murder. It's crazy. They think they're above the law; they think they're above school policy. We're in a different age. You have to be a team player, and that's it. It's nice to disagree, if you do it the right way.

"They don't understand -- you have to run this university as a business. You're going to the people on the academic side who don't understand the business. Then you may have people on the business side who don't understand the academics. But Biondi's been able to meld these two together better than anybody."

At least one of those tenured professors, John Pauly, chairman of the department of communication, thinks that Biondi's "very traditional" top-down management style wouldn't do well in the business world, because it has proved "pretty ineffective in a lot of other large-scale organizations."

Says Pauly, "Part of what the university is struggling with right now is that Father Biondi has appointed virtually every vice president on that President's Coordinating Council without any kind of national search or what other people would consider significant consultation. That's a big part of what we're suffering from now -- it's become a kind of patronage system. People are afraid to give him bad news because he has a hard and temperamental way about him. It's difficult to stand up to him, especially when he's made up his mind about something. He's fired a lot of people over the years, a lot of administrators."

Pauly contends that many of those who have survived Biondi's regime are "people who don't give him good advice and aren't always qualified for the jobs they hold, who are perfectly happy to encourage a kind of authoritarian response."

That chemistry has not served the university well, Pauly says, during controversial moves such as the sale of the hospital in 1997, the changing of the charter for the University News last year or the increase in parking fees.

Still "ecclesiastical goods"
The sale of St. Louis University Hospital, for decades known as Firmin Desloge Hospital, showed Biondi at his best and worst.

At first, the idea that SLU would sell off one of its most visible icons, the copper-topped hospital that can be seen for miles, was a blow to many local Catholics and alumni. To think that the university would sell it to Tenet, a for-profit hospital chain, just rubbed salt in the wound.

Archbishop Justin Rigali worked behind the scenes to dissuade Biondi and the 52-member board of trustees from accepting the bid from Tenet. If the hospital was to be sold, Rigali wanted it to remain in Catholic hands, to be sold to one of the Catholic bidders, either SSM Healthcare or Unity Health System. Trouble was, Tenet's bid was about $100 million higher, coming in at more than $300 million.

Rigali went public with his opposition on Oct. 4, 1997, triggering a Saturday Post-Dispatch page-one headline: "Rigali Wants SLU Hospital to Remain in Catholic Hands." Rigali stressed the Catholic hospital's history of serving poor patients and questioned whether that mission would be continued in non-Catholic, for-profit hands.

Biondi's tack was to say that even though SLU was a Catholic institution, it had been managed by a lay board of trustees since 1967 and that, therefore, the canon law governing the church did not apply. Ergo, Vatican City and the pope did not have to approve the sale. That spin baffled one veteran SLU professor.

"I don't know whether Larry is dumb or clever," the professor says, "because he allows Jim Kimmey, the vice president, out on the media saying, 'When we came up with the lay board of trustees back in 1967, we ended all applicability to canon law to St. Louis University.' He said that over and over again. I know people who were on that board, and they say that question never came up. It was unthinkable that it would have come up."

There were two basic reasons that the board's makeup under Reinert, then SLU president, changed so that it was only one-third Jesuit. One incentive was that having a largely religious board might keep SLU from getting federal or state grants. The Jesuits felt safe because most major issues required a two-thirds vote, and they felt protected by their one-third minority.

"Second, we wanted a lay board with a bunch of people on it who'd give money to us," the professor recalls. "There was never an idea of ending the applicability of canon law. How come Larry Biondi, a Jesuit, would think we would do that? Even though he didn't know the history, he knew the nature of a Jesuit university."

Whatever the motivation, it didn't play in Rome anyway. Rigali, a priest with many years of experience in Vatican City, worked the halls of a meeting of the Synod of Bishops in Rome, meeting with the Rev. Peter Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., superior-general of the Society of Jesus. On Jan. 28, 1998, the Vatican's Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo and Cardinal Pio Laghi informed Kolvenbach and Rigali that "the authorization of the Holy See is necessary for the sale of Saint Louis University Hospital." Furthermore, the change in the makeup of the board of trustees did not alienate SLU's properties, which, according to the Vatican, were "still to be considered ecclesiastical goods."

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