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

Tucci is not optimistic that the changed charter will achieve its goal.
"The U. News, I talked to that editor, the new editor. I told him I'd like to work with him; I talked to him and was nice. Forget about it -- they want conflict. I can tell it," Tucci says.

Whether or not the newspaper wants it, they got conflict for the April 1 edition this year. The administration might have wished it was an April Fool's issue, but the coverage of the March 31 demonstration in the quadrangle and the SGA vote against Biondi was no joke. In 144-point type, a size usually reserved for the second coming of Christ, the headline read "NO CONFIDENCE." Beneath it, in a typeface less than half that size, was "SGA Severs Ties with Administration/Hundreds Protest at Pre-Vote Demonstration."

The jump in parking fees that spurred the SGA vote was another aftershock of the controversial hospital sale. In navigating the troubled waters created by the proposal to sell the hospital, one consideration was the demands of Missouri Attorney General Jeremiah "Jay" Nixon's office. Because Firmin Desloge Hospital had been set up as a nonprofit "charity" hospital in 1930, Nixon wanted profits from the sale to be used for charitable ends.

Biondi and the university described underwriting education at the medical-center campus as a charitable end consistent with the intent of the initial gift from the Desloge family. Eventually, Nixon bought into that concept. But that meant that none of the $300 million from the hospital sale could be funneled to the main campus.

That created a $6 million hole in the budget, because each year funds from the hospital surplus found their way to the main campus. This shortfall, coupled with the costly completion of new parking garages, led Biondi and the trustees to make the decision that the expense of the new garages would not be covered by tuition or other sources. Parking rates would be increased. For many, the changes were not incidental.

For a student living in a dormitory, the parking rate jumped to $330 per year from $200 per year. For a commuter student, the cost has gone to $260 per year. For faculty and staff, the boost is more severe. For a reserved spot in a covered lot, some faculty members will be asked to pay $900 per year, more than double what they had been paying.

In pitching the fee changes to a medical-center audience, Biondi is reported to have said that the increases shouldn't have that big of an impact on staff workers because they could cover the extra expense by cutting back a six-pack of beer and a few packs of cigarettes a week. The remark, according to outgoing SGA president Hodes, showed another of Biondi's weaknesses -- a lack of empathy and a lack of understanding.

"You might get away with that if you had some rapport with these people," says Hodes. "But he has no rapport."

The Lexus, the olive tree and Larry Biondi
In the current bestseller by New York Times foreign-affairs columnist Thomas Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Friedman uses the car and the tree as "pretty good symbols of this post-Cold War era." He uses a border dispute over who owns which olive tree as symbolic of roots, family, community, a tribe, a nation, religion.

After touring a robot-dominated Lexus car factory outside Toyota City south of Tokyo, Friedman uses that car as a representation of "an equally fundamental, age-old human drive -- the drive for sustenance, improvement, prosperity and modernization -- as it is played out in today's globalization system.

"The Lexus represents all the burgeoning global markets, financial institutions and computer technologies with which we pursue higher living standards today."

Chances are Larry Biondi never read this book; surely he was driving a Lexus before it became the poster car for "higher living standards today." But ask his critics what's wrong with Biondi and, more often than not, his choice of vehicle is mentioned. Because Biondi refused to be interviewed, we don't know why a Jesuit who has taken a vow of poverty chooses to drive a car that ranges in cost from $30,905 for a stripped-down '99 ES 300 model to $53,605 for a basic LS 400. Or why he spends his vacations scuba diving in the Grand Cayman Islands.

This brings us back to comparisons. Biondi's predecessor, the Rev. Thomas Fitzgerald, S.J., could be considered an "anti-Biondi." Though he was fiscally responsible and did much to set the groundwork on which Biondi used the boom economy to build, the two were personally dissimilar. Fitzgerald made a point of staying at Red Roof Inns when he visited alumni in other cities; when in St. Louis, he lived in Jesuit Hall. The Rev. Daniel O'Connell, S.J., who admittedly headed a troubled administration in the late 1970s, drove a Volkswagen and for period of time lived in a student dormitory. Do these lifestyle choices make a difference? Kim Tucci doesn't think so.

"They talk about him driving a Lexus. Big deal. So you drive a Lexus and it's a $100 more a month as opposed to another car," says Tucci. "It'd be symbolic if he were driving a Cadillac or a Mercedes. A Lexus? It is an expensive car, but it doesn't have the name of a Cadillac, a Mercedes-Benz, a Jaguar. 'Here comes Father in his 500 SL.' He's got a Lexus, OK? You have to run the university like a business, and businessmen drive those cars. I have no problem with that at all. He's still not garish. He's still wearing black; he's still wearing his collar."

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