Saint Louis University president Lawrence Biondi made headlines last week when he refused to cave to students and faculty members who asked that Renato Laffranchi's painting Four Rivers be removed from its perch in the Cook business school. Biondi took the anti-censorship, pro-free-inquiry high ground in a meeting with members of the SLU Student Government Association and later reiterated it in an open letter published in the student newspaper.
But Four Rivers, whose verdant palette bears more than a passing resemblance to a swastika, was perhaps the least of many grievances the students brought to the table for their April 20 meeting with Biondi. So chafed were the student politicos that they intended to reprise the SGA's 1999 "no-confidence" referendum on Biondi. But by meeting's end, Biondi had bent like a reed on everything except Four Rivers. He agreed to meet with the student body president once a month. He agreed to attend a student senate meeting each semester, hold town hall-style meetings and think about scholarships for upperclassmen. He even agreed to make room for a student on the school's Space Committee, which determines how buildings are to be used.
"We basically got everything we wanted," student body president Nick Sarcone reports. "The biggest thing we were able to get out of this is the fact that he's got to meet with the SGA president at least once a month."
Biondi did not return a phone call requesting comment for this story. For that matter, he has yet to address the long-standing call by faculty and students for shared governance of the university. The issue dates back to 1999 and a "peace accord" Biondi signed in the wake of the last no-confidence measure, which was tabled when students discerned a lack of faculty support. (For more about the 1999 flap, see "The Sacred & the Profane," in the June 9, 1999, issue of the Riverfront Times.) At the time he agreed to allow one faculty member, one student and one staff member to sit on the President's Coordinating Council.
But Rick Breslin, president of SLU's Faculty Senate, says Biondi has done little to hold up his end of the bargain. "We were to participate in shared governance. We don't," claims Breslin, a tenured professor of leadership and higher education. "We participate in something called 'shared information.' There are no decisions made [with faculty]. Decisions are highly centralized at the university, and the faculty continues to want to be at the table to participate in shared governance."
The tempest erupted anew when the senate learned Biondi had formed a search committee to hire a new vice president for financial affairs. According to a faculty newsletter Breslin publishes, instead of consulting the faculty in the search, the university posted a listing on the Monster.com employment Web site. Biondi, Breslin wrote, "absolutely violated both the letter and the spirit of shared governance at the University. Why should the faculty believe that the best candidate has been chosen? President Biondi's credibility within the academic community is not high, so an assurance from him is not satisfactory."
The senate's executive committee drew up a "Motion of Condemnation" to censure Biondi's actions, which was to go before the full membership on Tuesday, April 27, as the Riverfront Times went to press.
Of course, condemnations and votes of no-confidence are only symbolic; only SLU's Board of Trustees has the power to topple Biondi. "Hopefully he'll think twice before doing the same thing another time," says Breslin. "He is a very powerful president. My hope is that we'll find a way peacefully to deal with those things."