It takes a special skill set to run a university system like LSU. You have to be an experienced administrator, an expert in higher education policy, adept at fundraising and the ever-smiling public face of the higher education system you run, which, if done right, means showing up to help freshmen move into the dorms, donning a hard hat to break ground on a new building and testifying before the Legislature for badly needed funding.
Sometimes all in the same day.
Perhaps most importantly, you have to have razor sharp political skills that enable you to navigate the halls of power with confidence and ease, projecting strength, even as you’re closely watching your back because you know you might get stabbed at any time—quite possibly by the friendliest guy in the room.
King Alexander, who announced earlier this month he will be leaving the stately oaks and broad magnolias to head Oregon State University, has excelled in most of those areas during his tenure at LSU.
No one could have done it perfectly, and after several years any president would have stepped on enough toes and made enough mistakes that his enemies would come circling. Then, all of a sudden, everybody is calling for new leadership at LSU, suggesting the current president is suddenly doing a bad job. As if they actually know anything.
In fact, though, during his seven years at the helm of the LSU System, Alexander did a remarkably good job and his tenure is marked by several major accomplishments.
As the first administrator at LSU to serve in the dual roles of president and chancellor, Alexander blazed his own trail without the benefit of a road map to guide him. He oversaw the consolidation of the university system even as his own position was one that had been consolidated. He implemented fundamental changes to the organizational structure of LSU, even though he wasn’t the architect of those changes.
And he had to do it all against a backdrop of chronic funding challenges and state budget cuts. He inherited a budget that had been cut every year for the previous six years. During his first two years at the helm, it would be cut still more by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration. As a result, LSU lost hundreds of faculty members, including some of its most prominent researchers.
But Alexander implemented those changes, breaking down silos between the different campuses within the university system, and with the different departments and affiliate organizations.
He fought tirelessly in the Legislature to restore funding, and secured two pay raises for faculty.
He oversaw the launch of a building program on the flagship campus that revitalized the Nicholson Drive corridor south of campus and helped enable more students to live on campus.
He implemented internal changes to LSU’s purchasing and finance departments—moves that created greater efficiencies, and increased coordination and cooperation among the campuses in the university system.
Above all, Alexander remained genuinely passionate about higher education and those the system was created to serve—the students—and under his leadership, student enrollment and graduation rates increased, both in size and diversity, on the flagship campus.
Those were the accomplishments of which Alexander was most proud because he was a higher ed policy geek, who spent a lot of time in Washington, D.C., working on ways to rethink the higher ed system and make it more accessible, affordable and equitable. He believes in outcome-based metrics that measure value and quality through a different lens than traditional college ranking systems and has worked to change the way public higher education institutions are evaluated and rated.
I didn’t know him well, but I spent enough time watching him and talking to him about this to know he is sincere and committed to this cause, not to the power and prestige of running a major university.
Like anything, Alexander’s strength was his weakness. His involvement in higher ed policy circles and determination to open the ranks of schools like LSU’s flagship campus in Baton Rouge to minorities and underserved students was unpopular in certain circles. He leaned more to the political left than most of the big boosters he was expected to call on and hobnob with in the suites of Tiger Stadium.
He was even said, for a time in 2016, to be angling for a Cabinet position, should Hillary Clinton be elected president. Molesting students could not have been more scandalous.
Then, there were the matters of LSU athletics for which some would never forgive him. He vetoed the firing of former football coach Les Miles in late 2015 for financial reasons. Then, kept Joe Alleva on board, despite growing criticism of the athletic director, who was ultimately pressured by the Board of Supervisors to step down.
In the end, it all worked out and LSU finished the 2019 season stronger than at any time in the past decade, as SEC champs, with the coach of the year, headed to the College Football Playoff.
Is the university as a whole in as good a shape as the football program? No, and there continue to be many areas in which it needs to improve.
But those problems are bigger than what any single president can be expected to solve. They require commitment from every level of leadership in the state.
If LSU’s next president is half as good as was King Alexander, we will be fortunate.