Father Knows Best

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

Zabel told the physicians he was going to meet with SLU administration, including Biondi, to ask where they came up with those figures.

Two days later, the medical-school faculty was informed that Zabel had resigned, "for personal reasons."

"Of course these overhead costs have been reviewed," SLU media relations responds by e-mail. "The UMG Governing Board reviews the details of the university overhead charges to the UMG each year. Overhead expenses will continue to be examined annually and, where appropriate, will be increased or decreased."

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.

Zabel is unavailable for comment. Those at the school who have tried to contact him have been told by his former office staff that he does not want to be reached.

"Biondi needs to get as much money as he can from various sources to allow him to do what he wants to do when he wants to do it," says a longtime Biondi watcher. "That's the key."

Biondi controls an asset unique to American university presidents. It's called the President's Opportunity Fund.

The first million dollars of unrestricted donations the school receives each year is allocated to SLU's operating fund. The rest goes to Biondi's fund, which he can tap with little oversight. He does not reveal to the university community how much is in the fund and can spend as much as $500,000 at any one time without seeking permission from the Board of Trustees.

"I don't know presidents at other institutions that have such opportunity funds," says a senior professor. "So ask yourself: Where does all the artwork come from? Is it true that he is free to go to Florida and buy artwork, or go to Oregon, or wherever he goes, and if it's below a certain amount he has the cash on hand because the Opportunity Fund's there?"

The Faculty Senate, which has grown increasingly frustrated with the president's overweening authority, questions not only where Biondi's money goes but from where it comes. In the past, Biondi has solicited trustees and staff to donate to his Opportunity Fund rather than to the school's general fund.

"Biondi builds monuments to himself," says one who has watched the buildings rise since the president's arrival on campus in 1987.

Among those monuments is the new St. Louis University Museum of Art, which illustrates Biondi's priorities, as well as his leadership style.

It's a beautiful building, but what's inside embarrasses those on campus whose expertise is art.

"His choices in art are demoralizing," says a member of the art department, "because art professionals are not being involved. We all hate the art, and it infects my teaching. I think about my teaching because there is this art on this campus and I don't know what to say about it.

"What may you talk or not talk about? Students bring it up. They want to know what I think. What do I tell them? I'm not good at dissembling. It's not appropriate in the classroom to dissemble."

Faculty are hard pressed to find ways to use the art museum as a teaching laboratory. "Biondi thinks of an art museum as a warehouse," says one art professor.

The art department learned how welcome its expertise was back when Biondi's first plans for an art museum were being developed, in 1998.

After Biondi removed the popular nightclub 20 North from the border of the SLU campus, he planned to build an art museum in its place.

But when the initial renderings for that building were examined by the art department, they noticed that a few basics had been left out. There was space for a fountain and a restaurant, but administrative offices and load-in facilities were minimal or nonexistent. Moreover, plans for visiting artist studios included viewing areas, creating a facility that the department referred to among themselves as the "art zoo."

The University News, SLU's student newspaper, interviewed members of the art department about the proposed museum. The professors mildly suggested that the art museum deserved a little more discussion.

Soon after, Biondi called the entire department into his office. According to those who attended, Biondi berated the faculty, calling the art school inferior and weak.

"All we did in that meeting was listen to how worthless we were," says one who experienced the tongue-lashing. "We were all troublemakers. None of us was famous. Where did we come off having an opinion?"

Last spring, Biondi got his museum, without a word of dissent. SLUMA is a beautiful renovation of a St. Louis architectural treasure.

Meanwhile, the art department itself -- the one that tries to teach students -- has facilities of lesser distinction than those of many high schools. A tour of the St. Louis Community College system reveals resources of a higher caliber than those provided to students in the SLU art department.

Photography is going to be offered at SLU this fall, but, as yet, no darkroom is available.

The printmaking area, which is a harbor for toxic chemicals and fumes, has for ventilation a single fan in the corner of one window.

The studio space is overheated in the winter, so students open the windows. The pigeons that fly in leave their droppings behind.

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