By Robert Mann
Even a blind miner occasionally finds a diamond. That seems to have been the case when the miners — otherwise known as LSU Board of Supervisors — hired F. King Alexander last year as system president and chancellor of the Baton Rouge campus.
To find its diamond, the board violated the state’s Public Records Law and the public’s trust. Even so, Alexander — who left California State University, Long Beach to take his newly combined position — has so far proved to be just what the beleaguered university system needs.
I was wrong about him. I argued that the rotten job search could only produce rotten results. That was incorrect, although it is still farcical to argue that the search was legal because Alexander was the sole applicant. NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune and the Baton Rouge Advocate will, I hope, prevail in their lawsuit to uncover the names of those considered for the job.
Why do I say Alexander was the right choice? For one thing, hiring him has allowed the school to hit the reset button with Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature. “We’ve had a good working relationship,” Alexander says of Jindal. Say what you will about the leaders who preceded Alexander, you cannot say they had a productive relationship with the governor. Much of that was Jindal’s fault. His attacks on higher education were brutal and unfair.
It wasn’t long after he arrived — shortly after I suggested he was the wrong choice — that I met with Alexander over coffee. (An amiable man, his instinct is to reach out to critics, not ignore or alienate them — a lesson Jindal might learn.) When I suggested that he promptly demonstrate his independence from the governor, Alexander wisely responded that he wouldn’t allow the university’s history with Jindal to impede his work of rebuilding LSU.
Begin to rebuild it, he has. That’s not to say that LSU is returning to its glory days (when were those, exactly?). Still, Alexander has righted the ship, earned the trust of legislators and seems to enjoy a decent relationship with Jindal. Some of that means occasionally giving Jindal more praise than he deserves and enduring ridicule of critics like me.
More than anything, however, it’s been Alexander’s tangible successes that suggest that — if the school can keep him — he might find a way to turn LSU into a more-respected and better-funded university.
Alexander clearly recognizes that he inherited a school with little political capital. He’s worked hard to build bridges at the state Capitol. He’s working on unifying the LSU system so its 10 campuses and divisions speak with one strong voice in Washington, “so our federal legislators know which [priorities] are most important to us.”
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