Father Knows Best

Lawrence Biondi radically remakes St. Louis University, leaving resentment in his wake

A professor closes the door to his office. Piles of books and papers have not yet found their way into boxes. He pulls out stacks of memos and clippings from newspapers that relate to the president of St. Louis University.

The prof leaves in a few weeks to teach at another school, yet he still asks for his name to be withheld.

"They do hear everything," he says.

Jay Bevenour
Students protested Biondi's leadership in 1999; now it's the faculty's turn.
Students protested Biondi's leadership in 1999; now it's the faculty's turn.

Although this sounds like a line from The X-Files, he doesn't display the nervous tics of a paranoiac.

"We're losing good faculty. I'm telling people who I like that they should leave. If I thought the administration would listen, I would be more inclined to stay. There would be progress here. But the last couple of years," he sighs, "it's been living without hope."

Outside his office, the SLU campus looks anything but hopeless, a charming greenspace surrounded by old and new architecture.

St. Louis University's stature has risen significantly since the Reverend Lawrence Biondi became president fifteen years ago. The campus has grown. New construction and renovation of old facilities continues. What was once a small oasis in Midtown's urban wasteland has been transformed into an attractive, pleasing campus that has helped revive, however gradually, the neighborhoods surrounding it.

The endowment has increased, as has enrollment. SLU attracts better students, with incoming freshmen brandishing higher test scores. A more ambitious faculty teaches those students. This faculty is involved in significant research and publishes in respected journals. Fifteen years earlier, this wasn't necessarily the case.

There are abundant reasons to celebrate SLU's achievements and to praise Biondi's leadership.

Biondi's oft-stated goal, his vision, is an ambitious one: for the Jesuit institution to become the greatest Catholic university in America.

Yet after numerous interviews with senior and junior faculty, tenured and nontenured, with administrators and former administrators, it appears the drive toward Biondi's goal has stalled.

A Faculty Senate report has emerged that is highly critical of Biondi's autocratic leadership style. Members of the Faculty Senate are beginning to consider a no-confidence vote on the president.

More buildings are going up, but the educational environment is diminishing. Esteemed faculty members have left and are leaving. At the School of Medicine, according to the Faculty Senate report and interviews with senior professors, morale is at an all-time low. The Faculty Senate study reports that 100 physicians and researchers have resigned in the last two years.

The sale of St. Louis University Hospital to Tenet Healthcare four years ago, a sale designed to secure the quality of the med school, was disastrous, according to the teachers who work there. Profits that once went to the university now go to Tenet. Those who work for the medical-practice arm of the school, the University Medical Group (a.k.a. SLUCare), must devote more time to their practice to pay the bills of their various departments, resulting in less time to teach.

In 2000, the Health Sciences department lost $12 million dollars.

The med school once prided itself on its students' success rate on national board exams. At most, one or two students would fail each year. Last year, 20 percent of the class failed.

The Faculty Senate report, delivered to Biondi in April, documents many of these problems. The most resounding phrase from that study ("Shared Governance at St. Louis University: Reality or Myth?") comes near its conclusion: "St. Louis University continues to be governed in a top-down manner that emphasizes centralization and micro-management and minimizes faculty voice. The consequence is an atmosphere of fear."

The professor packing up his office is not alone in his anxieties. The signs of fear are revealed by others who request that their names not be used for this article. "Biondi can get very, very nasty if someone criticizes him," says one longtime member of the faculty, not for attribution.

"I can't afford to retire yet," one senior professor jokes.

"There is, unfortunately, a feeling that there is a certain vindictive quality to things. That's unfortunate, very unfortunate," says another faculty veteran.

"The operating mantra of the president is 'power, money and control,'" says a professor who has been on the Biondi watch at SLU for many years. "I would say any number of people have heard him say that time and again, and it's absolutely true. He runs the place with that operating principle: power, money and control. If you are functioning that way, it's going to lead you to behave in certain kinds of ways, because you're driven by that particular motto.

"So many gifted people -- senior people -- are fearful of what he will do," the veteran adds. "That in itself is a powerful story."

"The esprit de corps of the faculty is at rock bottom," says one senior professor at the School of Medicine. "We've lost a lot of people. We have lost a lot of very good clinicians. The number of clinical faculty is down tremendously."

The loss of 100 physicians and researchers in two years is an underestimation, says a senior faculty member: "If anything, that's a conservative figure."

Former provost Sandra Johnson, speaking for the administration, asserts that such losses are in line with the national average. (The dean of the medical school, Patricia Monteleone, was unavailable for an interview.) Johnson, whose expertise is health law, says, "This is the toughest time I've seen for academic medicine." She cites as examples increased competition within the health-care market, as well as "the pullback from Medicare reimbursement, managed care, lack of support for medical education from insurers and from the government. It's tough."

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