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

On Feb. 4, 1998, the procurator-general of the Jesuits in Rome officially requested Vatican permission for SLU Hospital to be sold. The sale to Tenet was approved, but not until Rigali and Rome made sure that Biondi and the board of trustees required Tenet to commit itself to "Catholic principles and practices," including a commitment to provide indigent care. Abortion, of course, was banned.

In short, Biondi got what he wanted -- the sale of the hospital to the highest bidder -- but his end run around the Vatican City failed and yielded an unpleasant public fallout.

"It was acrimonious. Biondi should have been more diplomatic," says one faculty member. "It created a public rift that was unacceptable to many. Father Biondi was taking a position that was not accurate. He didn't have the facts, or at least the facts were not articulated as well as they needed to be. By that, I mean there was this assumption in 1967 that we had this approval to do something and, in reality, as much as the records were checked here and in Rome, they could never find that any formal approval was given. And it turned out that formal approval was not given as has been suggested. It turns out the archbishop was right."

So Biondi came off looking venal and perhaps confrontational, squaring off against the archbishop when the whole mess could have been avoided with some more thorough research and preparation. But once the deal was done, much of the criticism faded and, in retrospect, the financial sense of the deal surfaced. To save one of the few Catholic medical schools in the country, the hospital was sold.

Rod Coe, professor and chairman of the Department of Community and Family Medicine, calls Biondi's decision to sell the hospital two years ago "a prescient move on his part."

"The sale of the hospital was an absolutely brilliant stroke despite all the heartaches along the way," Coe says. "The Medical College of Pennsylvania was just bought by Tenet when it went bankrupt. Their hospital revenues dropped and dropped and dropped. All the money that Tenet paid went to pay their bills; there is no escrow there. We managed to sell our hospital while it was still profitable."

Coe, who has worked at the SLU School of Medicine for 29 years, says profits at the hospital were declining year by year. "It was still profitable, but it was headed for the tank."

Burdge thinks SLU "probably did the right thing."
"Nobody wants change, let's face it. But change is here -- we can't walk away from it. Health care has changed, insurance companies have changed, and people have a hard time dealing with that," says Burdge. "The fact is, we cannot go back to the '40s, '50s and '60s. They're gone. There's been a lot lately about hospitals and medical centers in the United States being in trouble, but we're not one of them. Harvard is $30 million in the hole. University of Pennsylvania, $180 million in the hole. All these major hospitals are having major problems."

Many of the dissenting voices from the medical school keep quiet because, as one put it, "It wasn't a case of being afraid to take your lumps -- rather it was, 'Well, this is inevitable, so why take your lumps?'"

Again, the main concern was Tenet's for-profit nature.
"I don't think it's wise to sell hospitals to for-profit groups. Ultimately I think that's going to bomb in their face, but in the present it hasn't. If times get tough, the for-profit will lay off a lot of people and close down a lot of services, or they might just leave town," the medical-center faculty member says. "They've done that all over the country."

Once the deal was done, it seemed to be typical Biondi: a sound fiscal move that was carried out despite appearances and in such a way that more than a few feathers were ruffled. What wasn't known after the hospital sale was how the fallout from that sale would trigger two other fiascos on campus -- the changing of the University News charter and the drastic increase in parking fees.

The U. News pays the price
Even Biondi's staunchest boosters have trouble talking about the ethical and strategic miscues surrounding the changing of the University News charter.

Biondi felt compelled to defend himself with a more than 2,500-word commentary in the Aug. 20, 1998, edition of the U. News, the first edition of the 1998-99 school year. Traditionally, the president is afforded space in the first issue. Pauly, who in addition to being chairman of the communication department was also head of the newspaper's advisory council, says the University News staff called him when Biondi's commentary arrived.

"In the morning they get this story, and it's this long, long screed about the U. News controversy," Pauly says. "Instead of welcoming the students back, Biondi takes this as an opportunity to kind of even the score."

In Biondi's commentary, after saying it was never his intent to censor the student paper, he stated that "the issues evolved around the legitimate question of how our University should best enact its legal, educational and administrative role as publisher. I would like to briefly examine each of these points." He then went on for more than half a newspaper page, dredging up the chain of events that led the board of trustees, at Biondi's urging, to change the charter to add a second faculty advisor and to expand the advisory committee's powers, including the selection and review of the editor.

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