Though at first glance it may have seemed like revolution was in the air, what really was evident was widespread irritation. The frustration was not over the inadequacy of welfare reform, the NATO bombing of Serbia or atrocities in East Timor; it was over something far more immediate and mundane -- a steep increase in parking fees. Beyond that, it became clear by talking to a few of those gathered that the bulk of the annoyance was with one man, a priest, a Jesuit: St. Louis University president Lawrence Biondi, S.J.
"Hey-hey, ho-ho, Father Biondi has got to go."
The students chanted it with gusto, and though the spiking of parking fees provided the trigger mechanism, clearly the target of the uprising was Biondi, who's been president at SLU since 1987. He had irritated some by selling St. Louis University Hospital to a for-profit chain; then he stirred up students by trying to rein in the student newspaper's freewheeling criticism of the administration by changing the paper's charter. The wacky addition of two outdoor wading pools and palm trees near the West Pine Gym baffled many as yet another example of the "Biondification," or over-beautification, of the campus. The virtually yearly increase in tuition, 7 percent this year, was a more tangible irritant for students, so a drastic jump in parking rates only made a costly situation worse.
Maybe this time, the sense was, Biondi had gone too far and had done too much to escape untouched.
In a break between speeches, Student Government Association (SGA) president Joe Hodes was feeling the fervor of the moment. He huddled with Glen Burleigh, a 19-year-old sophomore from Pine Bluff, Ark. Burleigh, wearing an army-fatigue coat, earlier had been holding a large sign that portrayed Biondi as Mao Tse-tung, complete with military tunic, stating, "Embrace the New Parking Increase Without Dissent."
Hodes wanted to move the SGA meeting scheduled to follow the demonstration from the smaller venue in the Pius XII Library to a larger room at the Busch Center to accommodate the growing crowd.
"Wait a minute, Glen," Hodes said, "go back and see what the St. Louis Room looks like. See if the job fair is out of there. Ask the people at the front desk if there's anything else up there, if it's available."
"They won't," Glen said hesitantly. "You have to go to Scheduling."
"We can just do it," Hodes blurted out. "Hell, we're about to vote no-confidence on upper administration -- I don't think we care what Scheduling says."
Well, the SGA meeting stayed in the smaller room in the library. And, of course, despite all the tumult and all the tirades, the riled were wrong. Biondi did "escape." A no-confidence vote on the administration was approved that night by the SGA; weeks later it was rescinded. The faculty senate talked about no-confidence but didn't put it to a vote. With a few minor alterations, the parking increases stayed in place. Meanwhile, on this last day of March and in the months that followed to the end of the school year, the students, faculty and staff had a chance to vent.
Joe Laramie, a 21-year-old junior communication major from St. Louis, was part of the marching throng holding up black-on-yellow NO CONFIDENCE signs. As he walked east toward Grand Boulevard, he offered a common take on Biondi: "He doesn't appear to have any concern for what the students or the faculty have to say. Verdicts are sort of handed down, and it's assumed they'll be accepted. It's the way that things are done, with this sort of kingly air, it seems like. I think that's what people resent -- his attitude, the way he comes across."
Up on the makeshift podium, between blaring renditions of what SGA president Hodes described as "our theme song" (Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It") Hodes read from his commentary in that week's University News: Repeal the parking increase; increase student, faculty and staff involvement in the "decision-making process"; and, oh yeah, the upper administration has lost the confidence of the university community.
But the real storm-the-Bastille rhetoric came from Gregory Beabout, a philosophy professor, who told the assembled that the problem was that decisions are "made by a few elites behind closed doors." In reference to the cryptic appearance last summer of the wading pools with accompanying foliage, Beabout triggered a loud response by asking, "When you went home last May, did you know we were going to come back to a campus with palm trees?"
Then things got metaphorically medieval, as Beabout compared SLU's current dynamic to days of yore when "lords acted like they knew what was best for the serfs, making decisions for the serfs. In those days the lords lived in castles and rode on mighty white horses. Are we being treated like serfs today?"
"We have a lord who lives in his own castle at the other end of campus ... "
"... with a Jacuzzi with gold fixtures, driving a Lexus and a fleet of golf carts."
The students didn't need a TelePrompTer or cue cards to respond. They knew the reference was to Biondi's living in the Marion Rumsey-Cartier House, a plushly renovated three-story home, more than 100 years old, at 3838 W. Pine Blvd. Most Jesuits on faculty live in rooms in Jesuit Hall, a converted hotel at Lindell and Grand. They know that Biondi often rides around campus in a golf cart. When he's driving off campus, he's behind the wheel of his Lexus. As for the "Jacuzzi with gold fixtures," that's a common rumor on campus that Biondi could confirm or rebut, and he's not talking. But the fact that many believe it to be true may be just as important as whether or not it is.
"Chuck Knight with a collar"
When people bitch about Biondi -- and believe it, they do -- the stories revolve largely around his hypersensitivity, his vindictiveness, his unholy language and what could be termed his champagne tastes, though because he named his dog for a cheap Italian wine, Gancia, maybe that term is misplaced.
"He's mercurial and he's petulant," says one businessman who has dealt with him for years. "He's been good for the university in a lot of respects; he gets things done. But, by God, he wants it when he wants it, and how he wants it is on his terms. And if he doesn't get it, he just blows sky-high. He's got a very short fuse and a big temper."
His language, which includes the F-word, shocks some people, particularly non-Catholics who imagine that priests don't use profanity. Catholics usually know better. But in one compliment -- or insult, depending on your perspective -- a person familiar with Biondi thinks the Jesuit views himself as "Chuck Knight with a collar." According to this observer, the Emerson Electric CEO is "not only one of the most effective executives around but he's also one of the most overbearing and profane men I've ever seen." One property owner who has had some rough real-estate run-ins with Biondi refers to the Chicago native as "Father Capone."
Another businessman who had a contract with the university got involved in a dispute with Biondi over nonpayment of a bill. Biondi said he wouldn't pay the bill, claiming that the work performed was not up to standards. The businessman denied that charge, but Biondi dared him to sue.
"We decided to drop it and just take the hit," the businessman says. "Biondi told me one time it'd 'take $100,000 to fight me,' which is probably true. He knew where he was." The decision was made that taking on St. Louis University in court would be bad for business. "It's a no-win situation -- it's like suing your mother, locally. And it would be bad press."
But there was a meeting with Biondi, in which the priest blew the man away with a string of what are commonly called obscenities. "He used very foul language. God's name in vain, the whole gamut -- nasty, nasty, nasty. I think what he thinks is, once he takes that collar off, he can say anything he wants. Before he sat down, he took the collar off. That's just my gut feeling. But that's what it appeared like -- 'Now I don't have my collar; I can say or do anything I want.' I said, 'That's not a very godly way,' and he said, 'Leave God out of it.'"
One businessman who has property that Biondi wanted near the university couldn't believe that at one point the SLU president leaned forward to ask him, "How long would it take for you to move your business? Three weeks?" So far, he hasn't moved or been bought out. He offers this perspective: "My take on Biondi is that he's a real hard nut to crack. He doesn't smile, except if it's for what he wants. Boy, he can be a hardheaded, unforgiving businessman. He wants to go after what he wants. Someone once told me that if you're Catholic you can be forgiven for whatever sin you want by going to confession," says the businessman, breaking into a laugh. "So maybe that's how he gets by with it -- I don't know."
The pace of snatching up property, a long-standing tradition at SLU, has accelerated under Biondi. Usually he doesn't have to resort to political muscle, but he did in the case of Twenty North, the bar at 20 N. Vandeventer Ave. on the western edge of the campus. In the case of that funky venue, known as the home of the Grateful Dead cover band Jake's Leg, the threat of condemnation won the day.
Randy Furrer, owner of Twenty North and guitarist for Jake's Leg, didn't want to sell his bar and move his band, but once Biondi got an alderman to his liking, the skids were greased. Previously, Velma Bailey was the 19th Ward alderwoman, but when she and Biondi had a falling-out, SLU and its influence went to Mike McMillan, who was elected in 1997. Biondi had already acquired the property at the northeast corner of Vandeventer and Laclede.
One of Twenty North's neighbors, Bruton Stroube Studios Inc., 38 N. Vandeventer Ave., is owned in part by local attorney Gary Carr. "We have been in discussion with the university for nearly two years," says Carr. "They are looking to buy our building." Carr's building might be used as is, if bought by SLU, but Biondi needs the land under Furrer's bar to fulfill the plan for an L-shaped art museum, rumored to cost up to $15 million and to have more square footage than the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Whatever comes of the plan, Furrer didn't want to move.
"We never got together until the mayor signed that bill to blight my property," says Furrer. "They waited until they had the upper hand. I'm still confused about the whole process -- how one business can take over another business just because they want to expand onto their property. I still think (Ald.) Michael McMillan didn't represent me as a business owner as much as he represented SLU. I think all that crap was just that, crap. As far as SLU goes, they did what they had to do, I guess." McMillan has previously said that he supports SLU's plans simply because he thinks it represented a major improvement for the area.
After some haggling, Furrer accepted Biondi's final offer instead of dragging the condemnation case out in court. Furrer plans to use the money to open a different bar, near Barnes Hospital. He thinks he did the least painful thing, considering the circumstances, but wishes he didn't have to sell out and start over.
"When you have that power, and an agenda to go with it, you do what has to be done," says Furrer of Biondi. "Is a Catholic priest supposed to do that? I don't know."
The casualty rate in DuBourg Hall, where much of the SLU administration works, is high. One estimate is that up to 30 vice presidents have come and gone during Biondi's 12-year regime. Richard Breslin, demoted from his job as provost, has a lawsuit pending against the university. George Otte, who ran SLU's program at the University of Orleans in France, sued the university in a French court after he was fired. The French court found in Otte's favor, and a $50,000 judgment was issued against SLU. The verdict and the ensuing ill-will were part of the reason SLU closed the program in France.
Sandy Wallick, who worked at the university for 19 years, was director of public relations at the medical center when she was discharged. She says SLU is a rough place to work.
"The politics at St. Louis U. -- and I've heard this from so many people -- are probably the ugliest in town," says Wallick. "You don't run a Catholic university on politics; I think you run a Catholic university on values. I've seen Biondi smirk when people are getting ready to lose their jobs the next day. I've been in meetings planning on how we're going to do the exit and how we're going to make life a little less bad for these people who are leaving. I've actually seen the smirk on his face. I can remember him saying, 'You have to remember, these people are probably going to be ready to wet their pants tomorrow.' What a stupid thing to say about people who are going to lose their jobs."
Wallick says that Biondi has done some good for the university externally, and that she even basically likes him, but she also sees "these ugly components of his personality." One of those attributes is ego.
One former student who dealt with him describes him as "incredibly Roman," almost a "Nero figure. He's an egomaniac."
One aspect of his ego is that he doesn't want former presidents, particularly the Rev. Paul Reinert, S.J., to get much of the spotlight. When Reinert finished his retrospective book about St. Louis University last year, The Riverfront Times requested an interview with Reinert to discuss SLU's future. Word came back that if any interview dealt with the future of St. Louis University, Biondi would have to be involved. Clearly Reinert was part of the past.
"At the very beginning Biondi had this thing in his mind that he was going to run the university and he was not going to depend on other experts in the university, particularly those who had looked to other masters before him," says one former staff worker.
At least one faculty member believes that Biondi is not at ease with many people and that he has turned out to be a bit of a loner.
"We don't know who his friends are," says the faculty member. "I don't know. We knew who Reinert's friends were. They may have been all from Civic Progress and rich Catholics in St. Louis, but Reinert had loads of friends. People he saw all the time, who'd call him up, he'd answer; he'd try to do something to get their kids into school if necessary. I don't know. Who knows Larry that well? Kim Tucci?"
An Absolute Conflict
Yes, Kim Tucci, an owner of the Pasta House restaurant chain and a member of the executive committee of SLU's board of trustees, knows Larry Biondi, and he likes him. Tucci, who sits with Biondi at Billiken basketball games and is seen as a confidant of the president, can't praise Biondi enough.
"Biondi's done a great job. The flaps are just part of the job; they go with the job," says Tucci, who also says Biondi's expansion of the campus to the east and his work shoring up the main campus has "saved" the city's central corridor. "Without St. Louis University, you can forget about it. You can take this city, fold it up, put it in an envelope and mail it somewhere else. What he did was phenomenal, joining downtown with the Central West End. He did that single-handedly."
Like others who like Biondi, Tucci thinks that most of the criticism of the SLU president is a question of style, the way he does things. Does it matter what car he drives, that he quickly joined the upscale Missouri Athletic Club when he first moved here? Is the rapid turnover in administration a result of his autocratic, brutish management demeanor, or is it just a sign of a university on the move?
The answers to those questions depend on how people see the university and what they believe it should be. As with any institution, for-profit or otherwise, public criticism of those in power carries risk. Many of those interviewed for this article spoke on the condition that their remarks not be attributed to them. A phrase used by Hodes in a University News commentary, that there was a "climate of fear" on campus, was often invoked by Biondi's critics. Even in a workplace where tenure can give a professor a sense of vague security, many fear indirect reprisals.
As for Biondi, he refused to be interviewed for this article. He returned my phone call, went off-the-record to decline the interview and then hung up mid-sentence during my entreaty as to why he should be interviewed. A follow-up letter asking for an interview went unanswered. Subsequently, even requests made to the university's PR department for basic information regarding SLU's enrollment, endowment and tuition figures were not answered.
Biondi was named president of St. Louis University in 1987, coming from Loyola University in Chicago. His academic background is in foreign languages, but the Chicago native was better known for his management than for his academics. Both at Loyola and at SLU, he was seen as a manager who spent long hours on the job examining everything from long-distance bills to budget proposals.
But for those who are tired of Biondi's act, he is painted as a profane, bombastic, self-absorbed CEO type who appears more suited for the corporate boardroom than a university where academic ideals are sometimes hard to justify on a profit-and-loss statement. To these critics, style has merged with substance.
"The way he approaches issues or questions, or the language that he uses, or the demeaning comments he makes about people, is not at all what I expected from a college president, let alone a Catholic Jesuit priest. That's the bottom line," says one faculty member. "I would hear in meetings people being brought up from the past and still being beaten down. I saw that as unnecessary and not in keeping with what the institution is supposed to be. If you read the philosophical statements about what the institution is supposed to be, or what the Jesuits stand for, there is an absolute conflict between the theory and the seen practice. That's not to suggest Father can't be very charming and very warm -- there is that side of him, but there is the other side. It is not what one should expect."
To Biondi boosters, such matters are barely worth noticing, much less mentioning. They look at the campus, which has been architecturally transformed since Biondi's arrival, and the endowment, which now totals $868 million (according to the Chronicle of Higher Education) and ranks 35th in the nation, and say, who cares about what kind of a car the president drives and whom he rubs the wrong way?
"I keep telling people, there are Christians, there are Catholics and there are Jesuits. They're not all the same," says Dr. Robert Burdge, chairman of orthopedic surgery at the university's medical school. "What other group of men have founded so many high schools and colleges in the world, outside the Jesuits? Nobody. They're some tough people to deal with." Saying that the university with the second-highest endowment among Jesuit universities has a president who can be difficult should surprise no one, Burdge says. "That's like trying to tell a CEO of some big corporation, a Chuck Knight, what to do. It's not going to happen."
Tucci calls Biondi a "superstar" and wonders where the university would be without him. He dismisses Biondi's critics on the faculty as unrealistic about what it takes to run a university. He also blames tenure for making some professors more bold than they should be.
"The people you're going to get that from are the literati," says Tucci of the criticism. "You get tenured professors to speak against him. I don't believe in tenure. It's the biggest joke in the whole world. Tenureship is ridiculous. They get away with murder. It's crazy. They think they're above the law; they think they're above school policy. We're in a different age. You have to be a team player, and that's it. It's nice to disagree, if you do it the right way.
"They don't understand -- you have to run this university as a business. You're going to the people on the academic side who don't understand the business. Then you may have people on the business side who don't understand the academics. But Biondi's been able to meld these two together better than anybody."
At least one of those tenured professors, John Pauly, chairman of the department of communication, thinks that Biondi's "very traditional" top-down management style wouldn't do well in the business world, because it has proved "pretty ineffective in a lot of other large-scale organizations."
Says Pauly, "Part of what the university is struggling with right now is that Father Biondi has appointed virtually every vice president on that President's Coordinating Council without any kind of national search or what other people would consider significant consultation. That's a big part of what we're suffering from now -- it's become a kind of patronage system. People are afraid to give him bad news because he has a hard and temperamental way about him. It's difficult to stand up to him, especially when he's made up his mind about something. He's fired a lot of people over the years, a lot of administrators."
Pauly contends that many of those who have survived Biondi's regime are "people who don't give him good advice and aren't always qualified for the jobs they hold, who are perfectly happy to encourage a kind of authoritarian response."
That chemistry has not served the university well, Pauly says, during controversial moves such as the sale of the hospital in 1997, the changing of the charter for the University News last year or the increase in parking fees.
Still "ecclesiastical goods"
The sale of St. Louis University Hospital, for decades known as Firmin Desloge Hospital, showed Biondi at his best and worst.
At first, the idea that SLU would sell off one of its most visible icons, the copper-topped hospital that can be seen for miles, was a blow to many local Catholics and alumni. To think that the university would sell it to Tenet, a for-profit hospital chain, just rubbed salt in the wound.
Archbishop Justin Rigali worked behind the scenes to dissuade Biondi and the 52-member board of trustees from accepting the bid from Tenet. If the hospital was to be sold, Rigali wanted it to remain in Catholic hands, to be sold to one of the Catholic bidders, either SSM Healthcare or Unity Health System. Trouble was, Tenet's bid was about $100 million higher, coming in at more than $300 million.
Rigali went public with his opposition on Oct. 4, 1997, triggering a Saturday Post-Dispatch page-one headline: "Rigali Wants SLU Hospital to Remain in Catholic Hands." Rigali stressed the Catholic hospital's history of serving poor patients and questioned whether that mission would be continued in non-Catholic, for-profit hands.
Biondi's tack was to say that even though SLU was a Catholic institution, it had been managed by a lay board of trustees since 1967 and that, therefore, the canon law governing the church did not apply. Ergo, Vatican City and the pope did not have to approve the sale. That spin baffled one veteran SLU professor.
"I don't know whether Larry is dumb or clever," the professor says, "because he allows Jim Kimmey, the vice president, out on the media saying, 'When we came up with the lay board of trustees back in 1967, we ended all applicability to canon law to St. Louis University.' He said that over and over again. I know people who were on that board, and they say that question never came up. It was unthinkable that it would have come up."
There were two basic reasons that the board's makeup under Reinert, then SLU president, changed so that it was only one-third Jesuit. One incentive was that having a largely religious board might keep SLU from getting federal or state grants. The Jesuits felt safe because most major issues required a two-thirds vote, and they felt protected by their one-third minority.
"Second, we wanted a lay board with a bunch of people on it who'd give money to us," the professor recalls. "There was never an idea of ending the applicability of canon law. How come Larry Biondi, a Jesuit, would think we would do that? Even though he didn't know the history, he knew the nature of a Jesuit university."
Whatever the motivation, it didn't play in Rome anyway. Rigali, a priest with many years of experience in Vatican City, worked the halls of a meeting of the Synod of Bishops in Rome, meeting with the Rev. Peter Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., superior-general of the Society of Jesus. On Jan. 28, 1998, the Vatican's Cardinal Eduardo Martinez Somalo and Cardinal Pio Laghi informed Kolvenbach and Rigali that "the authorization of the Holy See is necessary for the sale of Saint Louis University Hospital." Furthermore, the change in the makeup of the board of trustees did not alienate SLU's properties, which, according to the Vatican, were "still to be considered ecclesiastical goods."
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.
The staff of the newspaper asked Pauly to write a response, a "counter piece" to Biondi's.
"They didn't want to just run it and seem like they were suck-ups to the university. So I offered to do it," Pauly says. "I did it in about three hours."
Pauly's first paragraph was to the point: "Here is all you need to know about Father Biondi's style of management. If you disagree with him, you must be wrong. And he will make you pay the price."
One senior faculty member says, "I'm not sure I've ever seen so much courage from a faculty member" as was shown in Pauly's commentary.
"I'm sure there were people who disliked it," Pauly says. "Father Biondi couldn't have liked it. Most of the people in the vice president's council probably didn't care for it very much. But I literally had 40-50 people, from all over the university, all the way from staff people to administrative officials and deans, tell me, 'Thanks for doing that,' or, 'Somebody had to say that,' or, 'Good for you.'"
In Biondi's commentary, he claimed that "in the past few years, and particularly last year, the University News has become less balanced, more careless and, worst of all, far less mindful of the standards of the SLU community it strives to serve."
Much of the friction involved the coverage of the sale of the hospital. He specifically objected to one headline, "Hospital Sale Draws Vatican Investigation." Biondi called that story "wildly misleading" and "irresponsible." He also resented "having our University characterized as a prostitute in the cartoon of Oct. 10, 1997."
He concluded that the coverage of the hospital sale was "sensational, incomplete and ultimately misleading." One paragraph later, he admitted that the administration was "partially to blame for this." It seems that Biondi, during the hospital-sale flap, had told his senior administrators that all requests for interviews, including ones from the University News, would be handled by the university's public-relations department. "In hindsight, this was a mistake," Biondi stated in his commentary.
That tactic, according to one faculty member, shows Biondi is "very thin-skinned; he does not want any criticism whatsoever." Biondi, says the faculty member, also told senior administrators, "I'm not going to forbid you from talking to the press, but it's my preference that you don't."
"He wanted accuracy, but in reality he was telling key people not to talk to the University News. That's an internal conflict. How do you get the straight scoop if everything has to go through the PR people?" one faculty member asks.
"How many times have you ever heard on a college campus that key people won't talk to a student newspaper? Aren't we all about students? Isn't that the principal reason we have jobs?"
Even the change in the newspaper's charter, which occurred in the summer of '98, was a classic example of misinformation. Up until the June 13 board-of-trustees meeting when the charter change was approved, administrators and trustees denied that any change in the charter was in the works. After the meeting, John Kerr, associate vice president for public relations, met with newspaper advisor Avis Meyer and editor Leland Quarles, and Meyer and Quarles left the meeting unaware of any change in the paper's charter.
Not until August did the staff find out the charter had been changed and that the appointment of the editor was no longer up to the staff but would be controlled by the advisory council. With the revised powers given the council, the editor could be dismissed. In another change, the provost was given the authority to appoint two of the council's 11 members. The president was given control of selecting most of the members from lists submitted by faculty and the Student Government Association. The staff learned that a second advisor, law professor Peter Salsich, had been added to the newspaper. The threat that tuition remission for the editor might be revoked, made on the April night the editor was being selected, had faded.
The way Pauly sees it, Biondi and the trustees overreacted, big-time. "Clearly at some point this just became a power move, to try and take more direct control over the U. News," Pauly says, adding that the idea that libel was a problem was a false issue.
"If you look at the evidence of libel law, student press in the U.S. has an almost negligible libel problem," Pauly says, "in part because they don't have a lot of money that anybody wants to sue them for and in part because student press typically does all of the things that save you from a libel suit. They allow alternative responses, they print full and fair corrections of the work they do and they invite criticism in their advisory boards."
But Tucci, who as a trustee was involved in the discussion of changing the charter, thinks the University News has been too critical of the university. Tucci has two degrees from the university. "When I was president of my class, I used to call it the University Negative News. It hasn't changed yet. They have to be more positive."
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."
It's not just money that matters, but it counts for something.
"My response to that is that our endowment is the highest of any Jesuit institution right now," says Tucci. "The reason for that is Father being able to network like he has. I would think you have to travel in those circles."
Former St. Louis Ald. Jack Garvey, a SLU graduate and currently an associate circuit judge, thinks Biondi's temperament and performance are just what the university needed.
"Biondi has been great for the school. He's a guy who gets the job done. He is the perfect fit for an urban university. You need to be like that in order to do what a school in that location has to do," Garvey says. A university president might get by without street smarts, he says, "if he was at a college in the middle of the woods, maybe. But he's in the middle of the 18th-largest metropolitan area in the country, in the middle of an urban area that is less than desirable. The tools he has as a person are necessary."
And despite the complaints, the boundaries of the campus have been better defined by Biondi and the endowment has improved dramatically, largely through the sale of the hospital. Again, one observer who preferred not to be named says Biondi will be backed by alumni for one basic reason.
"The St. Louie U. crowd, especially from the law school, have always seemed like St. Louie U. played second fiddle to Wash U. I think a lot of the St. Louie U. grads and alums who are so in support of him are in support of him because it makes the university look better. To the extent the university's reputation improves, it improves the reputation of their credential."
The fountains, the fences, the statues, the endowment. Whether it's a person or a university, looks and money count for a lot, and for many they can cover a lot of flaws.