On a damp, blustery day in early January, the LSU Board of Supervisors gathered for its first meeting of the new year on the rural campus of LSU Alexandria, some two hours north of Baton Rouge.
It also happened to be the first board meeting since F. King Alexander had resigned as president of LSU to prepare for his new post heading Oregon State University. Perhaps surprisingly, however, there was no mention of a presidential search committee or of next steps to fill the position.
Not even behind closed doors during their private lunch did the board discuss among themselves how to proceed with the search, much to the dismay of at least some board members present. Instead, they were preoccupied with the only thing anyone really cared about that day—cancelling classes so students could attend the upcoming national championship game in New Orleans against Clemson.
While there was no discussion among board members about the presidential search, there was plenty of speculation among those in attendance at the meeting about how it would all play out. Weeks later, the speculation continues, while the board remains largely silent on its plan.
Part of the reason for the lack of action is that the board is not entirely united on anything, much less what it wants in its next leader—or leaders, according to sources familiar with the situation and board members, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Some are interested in splitting the position into two roles—a president of the LSU System and a chancellor of the LSU A&M campus, which is how the university’s leadership was structured until Alexander’s hiring in 2013. Some have begun openly talking about such a move and Gov. John Bel Edwards recently said he thinks it’s a good idea.
Not everyone supports the change, however, fearing a split in the leadership would set the university back and rebuild silos that have broken down among LSU’s various institutions in recent years.
There is also some disagreement over whether to conduct a national search and, if so, how open it should be.
Complicating matters is the outside influence of wealthy LSU boosters, who are working back channels to support the candidate they think would be best for the job.
For months—long before Alexander’s resignation—speculation around the Capitol was rampant that Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne already had the inside track. Though Dardenne denied he was eyeing the position, the fact he spoke about it publicly at all was, in itself, telling. More recently, he has said he would consider the position if it were offered.
Former Economic Development Secretary Stephen Moret is also said to be interested in the position. But he was a member of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration and is not thought to have the support of Edwards or a majority of the mostly Edwards-appointed board members.
Mark Emmert’s name has resurfaced as a distant but real possibility. Sources say the current NCAA president, who is still renowned here for his leadership as chancellor of LSU during what many see as its academic and athletic ascendancy in the early 2000s, has been approached about returning to the university and might consider it, though it’s still too early to say.
Emmert could not be reached for comment.
Board of Supervisors Chair Mary Werner has heard all the rumors but says she isn’t paying them any mind, adding she hasn’t been approached by or on behalf of anyone about the position. She has heard from plenty of stakeholders, however, who want the board to consider deconsolidating the positions again—something she is taking seriously.
“Every constituency I have talked to has encouraged me and the board to spend dedicated time answering this question and make the right choice,” she says. “It is a question on everyone’s mind.”
Reopening the issue raises a couple of intriguing questions, namely, Why would the board be so eager to reverse a decision it made fewer than eight years ago, and only then after a months-long study and careful planning? And, what would the implications be for other systemwide consolidations made during those years?
While’s it’s too soon to say for sure, national political consultant and LSU alumnus and lecturer James Carville has some ideas. He says he isn’t involved in any discussions and doesn’t have any inside information. But he believes there is a reason for the renewed interest in restructuring LSU’s leadership.
“If I’m reading the tea leaves, it looks like they’re doing this in anticipation of something,” Carville says. “It kinda says—and I don’t know this—it looks like a setup. When they start talking about changing the model, it makes me kinda believe that they’re lining up the stars for something.”
History repeating itself?
If there is a setup in the works to pave the way for a particular hire or hires, it wouldn’t be the first time a deal has been cut to arrange for LSU’s next leader.
In August 1984, LSU President Martin Woodin announced his retirement at a meeting of the Board of Supervisors, which then promptly appointed his permanent successor, to the surprise of no one, The Morning Advocate reported.
“In the wake of Woodin’s anticipated announcement, the board did exactly what many insiders predicted,” The Advocate wrote at the time. “Without a single voice of protest, the board reached over to the Medical Center and tapped Allen Copping to take Woodin’s place.”
Copping, a New Orleans dentist, was a close friend of then-Gov. Edwin Edwards and chancellor of the university’s medical center.
“Admitting the selection wasn’t really a surprise, Copping said he was ready to accept the challenge,” the newspaper reported.
Board member Patrick Taylor later explained why it was best to pick a local for the position rather than conducting a lengthy and expensive national search.
“A search committee might scour the nation and find a top administrator who would bring two days of good press to LSU and then take five years to learn the university and the state,” he said. “Copping … is smooth, debonair and a friend of the governor.”
No one has suggested history will repeat itself in the search to replace Alexander, and the current Gov. Edwards says he is staying out of the process. But the board’s renewed interest in deconsolidating the joint president-chancellor position does seem to suggest that politics is factoring somewhere into the process. It also implies the board is overlooking another piece of recent LSU history.
That history dates back to 2012, when a Jindal-appointed board retained national consulting firm AGB to assess LSU’s “structure, function and potential,” in order to strengthen and streamline the university. The consultants spent months researching the system and interviewing more than 75 administrators, faculty and stakeholders across the various campuses. Though the final report stopped short of issuing a recommendation on whether to have a single president or a president and chancellor, it pointed to the need for greater consolidation across the system in order to make LSU more globally competitive.
The board decided an important first step in that process was to merge the positions. As a transition team report issued a year later explained: “Each of the LSU campuses exist and operate in a management silo—limiting the opportunity for LSU to align campus missions, work collaboratively and leverage collective market power. (Merging the president and chancellor positions) was an important first step in the transition to a new management model, one better suited to transform LSU’s loose federation of independent units into a single, statewide integrated unity.”
There was another, practical reason the board wanted to merge the leadership positions: The previous president, John Lombardi, and then-Chancellor Mike Martin had famously disliked each other, a dysfunctional dynamic the board was determined to prevent from happening again.
Going back or moving forward?
In the years that would follow, the new management structure did accomplish many of the goals outlined by the consultants and LSU saw improvements in several areas. It went up in national rankings and enrollment. Graduation rates increased. Fundraising efforts improved. And, it realized $14 million a year in savings.
But some say LSU’s Baton Rouge campus was not necessarily well served by having one leader wearing two hats. Gov. Edwards is among them.
“You want your chancellor present at events on campus but also to do fundraising specific to the A&M university, whereas the system president has to do that all across the state of Louisiana,” Edwards says. “Having watched this play out over the past several years I do think the institution is better served by having a chancellor, who is not also the president.”
LSU Faculty Senate President Mandi Lopez also shares that perspective.
“It is just a yeoman’s task to try to do two jobs,” she says. “I am sure our leaders are very capable but we need someone on this campus advocating for this campus.”
Others say the effectiveness of the current structure should not be judged by the performance or experience of Alexander, who, as the first to hold the joint position, had to navigate the tricky waters of implementing the changes without a precedent to guide him.
“The reality is, he burned up a lot of political capital,” says one source familiar with the situation. “But that doesn’t mean you go back to the way it was before. There was good reason the board did what it did.”
Werner says exploring a leadership deconsolidation does not mean going back to the way things were. She says LSU in 2020 is far different than it was in 2012, with more students, more distance learning, and what she describes as a “global community.”
“I hate to even use the words president and chancellor because there may be other options,” she says. “I want to look at other models from around the country. We have to plan for the LSU of the future.”
If the board decides to split the positions, however, what would that mean for the consolidations and efficiencies that have been achieved over the past seven years? Would another layer of bureaucracy be added to campus? Would other LSU entities—like the law center—want its own chancellor again, as it had under the previous system? Where would you draw the line?
Werner, for one, says she doesn’t anticipate a return to the old system, though the board as a whole has not taken any official action since Alexander’s resignation in December.
Edwards also says he does not want to add layers of administrative overhead back on to LSU.
“I think many of the efficiencies that were created when the positions were consolidated can be maintained, even if the positions themselves get split up again,” he says.
For now, it’s too soon to say how it will all play out. But Werner says she is committed to a national search and to, first, revisiting LSU’s leadership structure. At the least, she believes it will take the better part of this year before Alexander’s successor—or successors—is in place.
That might be too long, says Carville, who believes there is a small opportunity for LSU, coming on the heels of its epic championship victory over Clemson, to attract a world-class leader for the university.
“We have a neo-historic opportunity here,” he says. “We have a world-class football team and a governor who actually likes us and in the middle of that we have an opportunity to pick a new president. They’ve got to get the right person. How they do that, I don’t care. But we have a window here and we have to take advantage of it—and it won’t be open long.”
Carville says he isn’t necessarily speaking of his friend Emmert when he talks about getting the right person, though he admits he would be “the happiest person in the world” if Emmert would come back. Does he think it’s possible?
“If you get the chance to get the best back, you should do it,” he says. “Emmert’s the best leader since WT Sherman … and it would send off good vapors.”
What would it take to win Emmert over to return to LSU? Carville can’t say but believes if Emmert is willing the details would come together.
“Big universities have lawyers and agents and they can make it happen,” he says. “Every day it happens.”