Remaining candidates for LSU president surprising because of who didn’t make the cut

When the LSU Presidential Search Committee announced the three finalists for the university’s top job late Wednesday after two days of online interviews and three hours of closed-door deliberations, the names that didn’t make the list were as surprising as some of the ones that did.

Heading into the interviews, the smart money among political insiders and LSU watchers had been on Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, who was thought to have the backing of Gov. John Bel Edwards and had been floated as a contender since early 2020.

Retired Gen. Jeff Talley also had support from some of LSU’s big boosters and an impressive though unconventional resume that some thought would land him a spot among the finalists.

Yet neither advanced to the in-person interview round, which will be held next week.

Instead, the committee selected Kelvin Droegemeier, a meteorologist and former policy adviser in the Trump and Obama administrations; University of Louisiana System President James Henderson, and University of South Carolina Provost William Tate.

Search Committee Chair James Williams says eliminating Dardenne, who has extensive state government experience but lacked higher ed credentials, was not an easy decision and that Dardenne was a strong candidate

“Jay Dardenne is a wonderful guy with great credentials,” Williams says. “We just had a lot of candidates with great credentials and we had to make a lot of tough choices.”

Tate, who is the No. 2 administrator at a peer institution, was a late entry into the field, submitting his application after the committee had already whittled its list of 23 applicants to seven. At the time, Williams clarified that while the process was officially closed, the committee would continue to accept applications through the weekend.

Tate’s application came in late Friday, according to Williams, who says Tate was recruited by LSU’s executive search firm, Parker Executive Search.

“I had never heard of Bill Tate until our search firm brought him forward as one of several candidates they recruited,” Williams says. “Apparently, when Parker was assembling everything, they had heard informally that Dr. Tate was thinking about joining the search and then he eventually submitted his application.”

Parker reportedly had worked with Tate before during USC’s presidential search in 2019. At the time, Tate was one of four finalists for that position and scored well among committee members, according to news reports. He did not ultimately get that position, but was hired by USC as provost one year later. 

Sources familiar with the search committee deliberations Wednesday night say Williams advocated strongly for Tate. Williasms says he is not pulling for one candidate over another.

“I do not have a favorite candidate, he says. “They are all strong. We have not brought them in here and interviewed them yet.”

Sources familiar with the situation say Droegemeier is attractive to some on the committee because of his ties to Washington, D.C., and, potentially, big federal grant money. 

Henderson, whose inclusion on the list was not unexpected, was considered a safe choice because of his experience running a large university system in the state.