LSU presidential hopefuls list reflects negative impact of recent scandals 

While the eight candidates selected Wednesday by the LSU presidential search committee to interview next week for the university’s top job have considerable experience in their respective fields, the list—and, indeed, the larger pool of 23 applicants from which it was chosen—lacks any top-level administrators from comparable peer universities, public or private, reflecting the challenges LSU will face attracting a top-flight leader, say higher education experts.

“It’s not what I would call the usual list of suspects for a top job at a major university like LSU,” says Jeff Selingo, a nationally renowned higher education strategist., who says he was surprised by the list. “Normally, for a job like this you would see more presidents from regional public universities and more provosts from flagship campuses.”

Instead, only half of the eight candidates that will be interviewed by the committee via Zoom next week come from academia at all—Laurence Alexander, professor and chancellor at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff; Jim Henderson, president of the UL System; Rustin Moore, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Ohio State University; and Mary Ann Rankin, professor and former provost of the University of Maryland, College Park.

Of the other four candidates, two come from the military—Army Maj. Gen. Ronald Clark, chief of staff of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command; Ret. Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Talley, president and CEO of The P3i Group; and two from government—Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, and Kelvin Droegemeier, former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

In contrast, the University of Iowa, which like LSU is the flagship institution for that state, announced earlier this week the four finalists for its vacant presidency. They include: a dean from Pennsylvania State University, the vice president of the University of Illinois System, Georgia State University’s provost, and the dean of the College of Education at Iowa.

“The LSU job in normal times would be considered a good job,” Selingo says. “You’d typically see more applicants like the finalists in Iowa.”

But these are not normal times at LSU, which has been rocked by recent reports over its mishandling of Title IX violations of sexual misconduct and violence on campus, as well as other scandals—fraternity hazing deaths, allegations of board interference in athletics and other hiring decisions, and dual NCAA and FBI probes into recruiting practices.

The university’s own search consultant told the committee at Wednesday’s meeting those issues, as well as the open search process, have had something of a chilling effect on the search.

“There have been concerns in the marketplace,” Laurie Wilder of Parker Executive Search told the committee. “The process is always a concern as it relates to the open nature of a search. …  The complexity of the position, president and chancellor, and what that means was a concern some had. There have been a lot of conversations as it relates to Title IX. That has created issues for candidates.”

Former President F. King Alexander’s statements in March to the Oregon State University Board of Trustees about LSU board interference and other issues he experienced during his years at LSU also may have negatively impacted the current president’s search, Selingo suspects.

Alexander’s comments, made as he was attempting unsuccessfully to save his job at OSU, were covered widely by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“No doubt that was influential,” Selingo says. “The Chronicle is read by the presidents of higher ed. I don’t think any traditional president or provost is going to want to come in there and have the board telling them what to do.”

No mention was made Wednesday of Tuesday’s report that legitimate back-channel efforts are underway to try to recruit NCAA President and former LSU Chancellor Mark Emmert to the university, where he served from 1999 to 2003.

But search committee chair James Williams told the committee Wednesday to ignore “rumor and Innuendo,” insisting that “we’re not going to do anything on the back of a napkin in the dark of night … no one is here for show.”

Williams’ comment was ironic in light of allegations Alexander made last month in one of the The Chronicle articles, detailing how Williams, then chairman of the Board of Supervisors, told Alexander at a 2019 private dinner at Juban’s with two other board members that the board had decided to hire Scott Woodward as athletic director, writing Woodward’s salary on a cocktail napkin.

Williams did make clear Wednesday that the application pool will remain open through the weekend, but said if any additional candidates come forth between now and next week’s scheduled meeting, the committee will have to meet again and decide whether to advance those candidates to the interview round.

A short list of semifinalists will then be recommended to the board for in-person interviews.