Bill McClellan, in his Post-Dispatch column on March 20, quoted Father Lawrence Biondi’s Feb. 27 letter as a sign of the SLU president’s willingness to reconcile with his critics. Biondi wrote: “To those of you who have been critical of my leadership, I have listened. While I do not agree with everything that has been said, my reflection leads me to see that it can’t be business as usual going forward. I am committed to being part of the solution; to working more closely with those around our campus who say that their voices are not being heard.”
McClellan observed, “That is not exactly Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning, but it’s a start.”
For faculty who have been at SLU for decades (I am in my 20th year), this letter is, to quote that Italian-American St. Louisan from the Hill, Yogi Berra, “déjà vu all over again.” I remember the last time we went down this road in 1999, when Biondi resisted compromise. He refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of faculty and student concerns. After students voted no confidence and faculty threatened to do the same, Biondi issued ambiguously worded statements that suggested, but never directly expressed, a change of heart. A document on shared governance was created. Faculty and student senate leaders expressed great satisfaction that progress had been made.
Several years later, as a member of a Faculty Senate committee, I assessed progress toward achieving shared governance. No progress had been made. Indeed there had been many reversals. The committee reported a pervasive climate of fear on campus.
That report was issued over a decade ago.
I take no pleasure in stating that Fr. Biondi’s words in this most recent letter cannot be trusted. He has broken faith too many times with those who have hoped for the best and willed to believe him to be a man of honor.
Fr. Biondi depends on the religious principles and high ideals of students, staff and faculty at times like this to dissipate opposition and divert attention from his failed leadership. His subsequent, well-documented conduct — firing those who disagree with him, destroying careers, demeaning university members in public settings and punitively reducing recommended merit raises — calls for caution and demands prudence. As this academic year ends and contracts are being prepared for 2013-2014, faculty members are bracing themselves for just such retaliation.
Why does McClellan describe the president as conciliatory? Biondi still defends the documents that would have ended tenure. He continues to attack outspoken faculty by name, defaming their character and — in at least one case — making false accusations in the presence of supervisors. Biondi demanded the firing of one dean. His offense: public affirmation of faculty and students concerns.
Perhaps the greatest scandal is the invisibility of Jesuit spiritual leadership in this time of crisis. Lay faculty (many non-Catholic) and students are in the forefront of this conflict, defending the Catholic Jesuit character of Saint Louis University. Yet superiors of the Society of Jesus have yet to take a clear public stand in a matter central to the integrity of a great Jesuit university. Hand wringing in private is no longer sufficient.
Biondi holds two roles as head of Saint Louis University: from the Board of Trustees he is the authorized president of the university. They alone have the authority to end his presidency. From his Jesuit superiors, Biondi has been designated “director of the apostolic work of Saint Louis University.” It is a role his Jesuit superiors have given him and only they can take away. Biondi has long demonstrated by his conduct that he is not worthy of this responsibility. When will his superiors remove him from that role, and thus signal to the lay Board of Trustees their lack of confidence in Biondi’s ability to lead Saint Louis University?
Since the Board of Trustees has failed to respond to the legitimate concerns of the university community, faculty and students watch and wait and wonder. Is there spiritual substance to the Christian values Jesuits have taught us? If there is, action is required from Jesuit superiors. Their silence amplifies the scandal of Biondi’s presidency.