For its upcoming presidential search, the Louisiana State University System may take a turn towards insularity that could produce a pick either risky or unsuitable for the future of LSU.
With current Pres. F. King Alexander preparing to vacate the premises, by spring the System hopes to have a new leader in place, who also will head the Baton Rouge campus. Two familiar names quickly surfaced in connection with the job, neither fitting the traditional model of a doctoral holder with substantial academic experience.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Reviews of the term of Sean O’Keefe, who led LSU through the hurricane disasters of 2005, were positive. He holds only a masters degree and had spent just a few years in academia prior to his appointment. However, he had served in a couple of high-profile George W. Bush Administration posts and had years of prior government service in high-level Department of Defense positions. (He also had insider status as part of a politically-prominent family – for better and worse – from New Orleans.)
And, increasingly, university bosses come from non-traditional backgrounds. Typically, these individuals either have their terminal degrees in a professional field (such as medicine, law, or business) or don’t have any such credential but have extensive experience in higher education governance or a varied past in important government jobs and/or as executives in large businesses. However, relatively few have a limited range of academic, government, or business experience nor a doctorate (or other equivalent nonprofessional terminal degree).
The two names bandied about fall into that category, who also both have served in high-level jobs in Louisiana and were student body presidents at LSU. Posing as something of a question mark is Stephen Moret, who in the past led the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, the state’s Department of Economic Development, and the LSU Foundation. Currently, he heads up Virginia’s economic development efforts, with his biggest coup coming in landing Amazon’s second headquarters.
Moret’s highest degree is only an MBA, but from his previous roles he has extensive fundraising and public relations experience, tasks that take up a (regrettably) significant portion of a modern university president’s time. His time at the Foundation also at least dipped his toe into university governance. His appointment would be a gamble, but perhaps one that could pay off.
Such optimism is lost on the other mentioned name, current Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, whose appointment would bring disrepute on Louisiana higher education. It’s not so much that Dardenne has little more on his resumé that being a political hack with no academic experience. He has spent his entire career as a lawyer and in government of some kind, from the Baton Rouge Metro Council to state Senate to Secretary of State to Lieutenant Governor, landing his current job after Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards defeated him for governor and needed someone to present a veneer of bipartisanship (Dardenne always ran as a Republican) as the face of his administration.
Once known and respected as a reformer and skeptical of higher government spending, Dardenne sold his soul once he hooked up with Edwards. He has transformed into a hyper-partisan attack dog sicced on opponents of Edwards’ tax-and-spend agenda, giving a reminder of that last week with comments about revenue estimation that displayed both ignorance of the Louisiana Constitution and contempt of the concept of separated powers. His lowest moment in government came related to that issue, when earlier this year he stooped to lying unashamedly in public to legislators (an especially disappointing development given his a reputation, acquired over decades in office and through other forms of public service, as a person of elevated moral character).
Hiring into the state’s top university job somebody like Dardenne, who other than running large government agencies in the same city as his alma mater his entire career has zero applicable experience in academic administration, would show Louisiana higher education generally and LSU and its system institutions in particular can’t be taken seriously. It signals to academicians, alumni, and current students and families who might consider their children receiving an LSU System education that rank politics comes before the temperament, mindset, and skills needed to manage provision of a quality education and advancement of higher learning.