Leadership & Governance

Lombardi's Firing at LSU Puts Spotlight on Governor's Reach Into University Affairs

Carolyn Kaster, AP Images

Critics say that Gov. Bobby Jindal (shown speaking to reporters earlier this year) has taken an outsize role in the day-to-day management of the university system, often in alignment with a group called the LSU Flagship Coalition.
May 02, 2012

John V. Lombardi's firing last week as president of the Louisiana State University system is described by his supporters as the culmination of years of interference from Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration, and an indication of the growing power of a group of business leaders seeking greater autonomy for the state's flagship campus.

Several of the 12 members of the university system's Board of Supervisors who voted in favor of dismissing Mr. Lombardi have publicly stated that they did so free of outside influence, and the minority who supported the former president have not produced direct evidence that Mr. Jindal or his staff ordered the firing.

But board members who tried to save Mr. Lombardi's job describe a pattern of micromanagement by Mr. Jindal's administration. One board member says that the Republican governor's staff tried to strong-arm Mr. Lombardi into firing people, and others note Mr. Jindal's undisputed influence on the appointment of one of his campaign fund raisers to a powerful university medical board.

Taken together, the charges paint a portrait of a governor's office intent on inserting itself into the day-to-day management of the university system, often in alignment with a group called the LSU Flagship Coalition. The coalition, which is principally led by Louisiana businessmen, advocates a restructuring of the system that would give the Baton Rouge campus oversight of other campuses, such as the LSU Law center, and vest greater powers in the position of the flagship's chancellor.

The influence of the flagship coalition, working in tandem with the governor's office, came into sharp relief several months ago, a source close to the Board of Supervisors said in an interview. At the coalition's behest, the board's leaders advised Mr. Lombardi to fire several members of his staff who were viewed as insufficiently responsive to directives from the governor's office, said the source, who was granted anonymity to discuss the board's internal workings.

Alvin Kimble, a board member who supported Mr. Lombardi, said the individuals Mr. Lombardi was pressured to fire included Mike Gargano, chief of staff and vice president for student and academic support; P. Raymond Lamonica, general counsel; and Charles F. Zewe, vice president of communications and external affairs.

The suggestion of firings was "reinforced" by members of Mr. Jindal's staff during two meetings with Mr. Lombardi, the source close to the board said.

Mr. Lombardi declined interview requests, as did the three employees who were said to be targeted by the coalition and the governor's staff.

The governor's office did not respond to the specific allegations of pressuring Mr. Lombardi or broader charges of micromanagement. Mr. Jindal did release a statement on Friday calling Mr. Lombardi's dismissal the "right decision."

Mr. Kimble said the former president views his dismissal as a final indication that the majority of the university board no longer functions as an independent governing body.

"He feels like the guys on the board are acting solely now at the behest of the governor," said Mr. Kimble, who had dinner with Mr. Lombardi Friday night after the president was fired.

Several members of the voting majority, including Garret (Hank) Danos, the board's chairman, declined interview requests.

Louisiana's governor has the authority to nominate members of the Board of Supervisors but does not have an ex-officio position on the board, as governors do in some other states. Half of the board's 16 members were nominated by Mr. Jindal, and all of those nominees voted to fire Mr. Lombardi. The other four who voted with the majority included a student representative and three members who are eligible for reappointment when their terms end in June.

Explaining their votes during Friday's meeting, several board members said Mr. Lombardi had lost credibility with key decision makers in the state.

This is not the first board with which Mr. Lombardi has run afoul. His tenures at the University of Florida and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst also ended on sour notes.

Powerful Coalition

Mr. Lombardi's ouster at Louisiana State was a surprise to many, but his cantankerous style has always been described as a liability. He also drew critics, many of them students, for advocating tuition increases and criticizing popular merit-based scholarships awarded by the state. It was not until a couple of months ago, though, that his supporters said they first learned powerful constituencies wanted the president out.

For Mr. Kimble, a warning about Mr. Lombardi's precarious position came when he received a phone call from Sean E Reilly, co-chairman of the LSU Flagship Coalition.

"Sean called me and said we need to get rid of John Lombardi," Mr. Kimble recalls.

Mr. Reilly did not respond to multiple interview requests. However, he told The Advocate, a newspaper in Baton Rouge, that the coalition had "stayed out" of discussions involving Mr. Lombardi's status at the university.

Mr. Kimble's contention that the coalition's co-chair was pushing for the ouster of the system's president months ago has only fueled concerns that the group has influence over personnel and governance decisions at Louisiana State.

"I think there's no doubt they've got a lot to do with" Mr. Lombardi's firing, said Anthony G. Falterman, a board member who supported the former president. "They don't like Lombardi. He's independent, but he's what LSU needs."

The Flagship Coalition includes many of Mr. Jindal's supporters, but also a notable voice from the Democratic Party. James Carville, the lead strategist in Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign and a Louisiana State alumnus, is counted among the group's 54 members.

The coalition has argued that its agenda will help establish the Baton Rouge campus as a "top tier" research university, but its rhetoric is grounded in an economic-development pitch that mostly centers on producing nurses or mid-level business executives, said Kevin L. Cope, chair of the Faculty Senate on the Baton Rouge campus.

"So far we have not seen a single example of work-force development that is aimed at basic research or advanced research," said Mr. Cope, an English professor and chair of the LSU System Council of Faculty Advisors, which includes presidents of all the system's campuses. "You'll hear them talking about petroleum engineering, but you won't hear them talking about astronomy. There's nothing wrong with those fields, but that is not the emphasis you expect from people who are pushing a supposed flagship research institution."

Mr. Cope says he is also concerned about the financial ties the provost on his campus has to a company run by Mr. Reilly, who is in many ways the face of the coalition.

John Maxwell Hamilton, the provost, has been a member of the board of directors at Lamar Advertising, where Mr. Reilly is chief executive, since 2000. In his last five years as a director at Lamar, Mr. Hamilton's average annual compensation, including cash and stock, was $130,856, according to the company's proxy statements.

Mr. Hamilton said his board membership at Lamar presents no conflict of interest, adding that he would not be concerned about opposing an initiative pushed by the coalition.

"There is no evidence whatsoever that the Flagship Coalition has had an impact on the way we conduct our business on campus. Period," he said. "And the reason there is no evidence is because they have made no effort whatsoever to impact the way we conduct our business."

Independence Questioned

If there is a central concern aired in the wake of Mr. Lombardi's firing, it is that the independence of key players in the debate over the future of higher education in Louisiana has been compromised by purely political loyalties. While a governor's nominees to the Board of Supervisors would be expected to share some of his or her policy positions, Mr. Jindal's nominees are a voting bloc unlike any Laura A. Leach says she has seen in her 18 years on the board.

"This isn't new," Ms. Leach said. Mr. Jindal "has been systematically turning people on the board over to his side. How, I don't know. I don't know what deal he made with them."

Ms. Leach, whose husband, A. Claude (Buddy) Leach Jr., chairs the state Democratic Party, cites a 2010 incident as evidence of meddling by the governor. Mr. Lombardi had nominated Elaine Abell, a lawyer from Lafayette, La., to be chair of the board of the new University Medical Center, a $1.2-billion facility being built in New Orleans to replace Charity Hospital, which was badly damaged after Hurricane Katrina.

After Mr. Lombardi selected his nominee, a majority of members of the Board of Supervisors instead chose one of their own, Robert Yarborough, in part because of "input from the governor's office," a system news release stated.

Mr. Yarborough, who was appointed by Mr. Jindal to the Board of Supervisors, also served as campaign finance chairman for the governor.

Until last week, Mr. Yarborough's appointment to the medical center board might have qualified as ancient history, even to critics of Mr. Jindal. But Mr. Lombardi's firing has again exposed divisions within the board and reopened many old wounds. Those divisions were on full display last Friday, as board members preparing to vote on Mr. Lombardi's fate publicly questioned each other's motives.

Stanley J. Jacobs, who voted in favor of Mr. Lombardi's dismissal, said Tuesday that he hoped to move on.

"I think we're in a healing process," he said. "I'd rather not respond to anything."