Ever since F. King Alexander was named LSU president in 2013 after leaving his seven-year ten post at California State University, Long Beach, the decision has been shrouded in controversy.
Now, after almost seven years in Baton Rouge, Alexander is on the move again.
In a live-streamed press conference Friday afternoon, the Oregon State University Board of Trustees concluded its six-month search process which involved 68 interviewed candidates, announcing that Alexander would become the university’s next president in June 2020 after the retirement of current president Ed Ray.
“I have had the privilege of witnessing so many of you take on greater challenges than you ever anticipated, push yourselves beyond your known limits and work incredibly hard to achieve your dreams, all while watching out for your fellow Tigers,” Alexander wrote in a letter to University students.
Alexander will formally begin as Oregon State’s 15th president on July 1. Thomas Galligan, dean of the University’s Paul M. Hebert Law Center, will serve as interim president while the LSU Board of Supervisors conducts the search for a replacement. Alexander will remain at LSU doing research until next spring.
Secrecy surrounded Alexander’s hiring in March 2013 after John V. Lombardi was fired under alleged influence by Gov. Bobby Jindal. Then-Reveille Editor-in-Chief Andrea Gallo filed a lawsuit against the Board of Supervisors after being denied a public records request for a list of candidates in the running for the vacant president position. East Baton Rouge District Judge Timothy Kelly sided with the Board of Supervisors, but stated he did not believe there were any actual applicants besides Alexander and 10 others who failed to make the final round of picks.
The LSU faculty senate unanimously gave Alexander a negative vote of confidence in March 2013. The senate justified its decision by asserting graduation rates at CSULB were lower than LSU’s and because Alexander never served as a tenured full professor at a major research University.
Alexander came into power as an outsider, without the support of Jindal, from CSULB, a university with no football team.
Alexander faced an existential crisis early during his tenure at the University. Years of Jindal-led higher education budget cuts decimated LSU’s funding. Months after taking over, Alexander secured University faculty their first pay raise since 2009. The 4% pay raise in 2013 was followed by a 3% the next year.
“Alexander had a horrendously difficult job, but I think he solved two crucial problems: a deep cut in financial support from the state and a sudden and alarming decline in enrollment,” Wendell Gray Switzer Jr. Endowed Chair in Media Literacy Len Apcar said in an October interview.
In 2009, the University received $254 million in state appropriations. By Alexander’s final year as president, the total had dropped to $115 million, roughly a 55% decrease. To account for reduced funding, the University had to self-generate funds, mostly in the form of student fees and increased enrollment.
Enrollment totals dropped during two of Alexander’s first three years at the University, eventually falling below 31,000 students in 2017. The University’s “holistic admissions” policy, implemented in 2018, sought to increase enrollment by taking a new approach to evaluating applicants, placing a less emphasis on standardized test scores while focusing more on extracurricular activities, writing samples and high school workload.
The University has welcomed back-to-back record-breaking freshmen classes since the policy’s implementation. Over 6,100 students make up this year’s freshman class, according to a University press release. Diversity within the incoming class also increased by more than 7%. This came as standardized test scores and average high school GPAs have remained consistent and the Roger Hadfield Ogden Honors College has broken enrollment records.
Alexander’s tenure also saw the construction of the Nicholson Gateway Complex and the renovation of the University Recreation Center.
In the last six years, four-year graduation rates have risen from 38% to 43%. Total enrollment has additionally increased from 30,486 in 2013 to 31,761 in fall 2019. Furthermore, African-American and Hispanic enrollment has reached record highs, according to the LSU Office of Budget & Planning.
Holistic admissions garnered intense scrutiny in fall 2018 from University donors and the Louisiana Board of Regents. Benefactor and Board of Regents member Richard Lipsey blasted Alexander in The Advocate’s opinion columns, claiming the policy would lower the University’s academic standards. Lipsey further criticized Alexander for not seeking approval of the policy from the state’s higher education board.
“The unilateral action he [Alexander] has taken to disrupt the admission processes for not only LSU, but school across our great state is unwise, dangerous and will produce chaos,” Lipsey wrote in September 2018.
The ensuing public battle resulted in the Board of Regents launching an audit of admissions standards at public universities throughout the state. In June, the board concluded the audit, finding LSU had exceeded the Regents’ admission policy for allowable admissions exceptions and advised the University to limit the acceptance of less-qualified students.
Rumors circulated in fall 2016 that Alexander would be tapped as Secretary of Education for the nation’s first female president, Hillary Clinton. The Greater Baton Rouge Business Report reported on consultations Alexander had with the Clinton campaign. Alexander further defended Clinton’s higher education plan in a New York Times article.
Clinton even got involved with LSU. The former Secretary of State’s wrote a letter to University student Clarke Perkins, who had a racist message posted on her apartment door.
Clinton’s presidential bid ultimately failed, rendering rumors of Alexander’s University departure moot.
Ten months after Clinton’s defeat, 18-year old University freshman from Roswell, Georgia Max Gruver died after an alcohol-infused Phi Delta Theta “Bible Study,” a hazing ritual where pledges are required to chug hard liquor if they incorrectly answer questions about the fraternity.
Gruver’s blood-alcohol level was .495%, more than six times the legal limit to drive in Louisiana. Phi Delta Theta was subsequently banned from the University until at least 2033.
In response to Gruver’s death, Alexander and his Greek Life Implementation Committee ushered in a wide umbrella of policy changes focused on increased University oversight and improved Greek accountability.
The new policies banned hard alcohol with over 12% ABV and open-source containers at registered Greek life events on and off campus. The committee established an amnesty policy intended to promote action during emergency situations, allowing students to reporter dangerous behavior and not face disciplinary action from the University.
Major changes also came to Greek tailgating. After the University moved all Greek life football tailgates to the Parade Ground in 2005, Alexander and the committee reversed the policy in 2018. Tailgates in chapter houses required security services as part of the new procedures.
On Oct. 2, 2018, Lofton Security Service informed the University it would longer provide security for Greek tailgates. This led to a ban on Greek tailgating in chapter houses.
Alexander received criticism for his actions from both sides of the Greek life debate. The Gruver family called Alexander’s Task Force on Greek Life’s final report “disgraceful” and said it did not deserve to be associated with Max’s memory.
“The report epitomizes what happens when task forces like these are comprised of members with vested interests in perpetuating the current failed Greek Life system,” the Gruver family said in February 2018. “[The report] proffers no real meaningful changes to Greek Life that would have prevented the death of our son, any of the other injuries, or sexual assaults that have plagued LSU’s fraternities.”
The regulations were unpopular with Greek Life members. One psychology freshman with the Pi Beta Phi sorority said she felt the University was unfairly unbiased against Greek organizations in fall 2018.
The conservative Louisiana blog, The Hayride, bashed Alexander Friday after his announced departure for “conducting a war on the Greek system.” Lipsey went further, telling The Advocate Alexander was unable to handle LSU Greek Life.
Since Gruver’s death in September 2017, numerous Greek organizations have received suspensions or bans for violating the new policies. Pi Kappa Phi was suspended until May 2023 in March due to violations of the University’s hazing and alcohol policies. Delta Kappa Epsilon closed in the spring of 2019, culminating with the arrest of fraternity members for hazing activities.
Rumors of Alexander’s exit swirled earlier this year as the Kentucky native sold his home in Baton Rouge and moved into a University-owned property on East Lakeshore Drive. At the time, LSU Media Relations Director Ernie Ballard said the move was in part due to the University’s $1.2 billion “Fierce for the Future” campaign which would require Alexander to be closer to campus.
Regardless of the move’s rationale, it lessened Alexander’s ties to Baton Rouge. The former Murray State University president’s outsider status never evaded him. His aggressive style in interactions with the state legislature and drive for more federal funding toward higher education drew Alexander the ire of Baton Rouge conservatives who privately suggested Alexander was more concerned with Washington D.C. than LSU.
“The fact that [F.] King [Alexander] has become a national voice in the new thinking on higher education as universities evolve is an exciting opportunity for this state [Louisiana],” Board of Supervisors member Stephen Perry said in a Greater Baton Rouge Business Report article from 2016. “Unfortunately, a lot of people like the old status quo in Louisiana and are uncomfortable with national though leadership emerging from our state.”
The Board of Supervisors extended Alexander’s contract through 2023 in October 2018. Despite generally positive feedback, the board blindsided Alexander by hiring Baton Rouge native Scott Woodward as athletic director in April. Traditionally, it is not a role of the Board of Supervisors to appoint or fire University administrators. Alexander was brought into the fold only after Woodward emerged as the primary candidate to replace the often-vilified Joe Alleva.
The return of Woodward allowed Lipsey another opportunity to jab at Alexander.
“The president has never raised any money, and neither has Joe Alleva,” Lipsey said to The Advocate in April.
A rumored Alexander replacement, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, was contacted by the Board of Supervisors and instructed to make the first call congratulating Woodward.
Dardenne served as lieutenant governor under Jindal from 2010 to 2016. He never broke rank with the former governor despite cuts to higher education funding that paralyzed the University’s ability to issue pay raises and complete badly needed infrastructure projects.
With the University facing calmer financial waters, Alexander’s permanent replacement will take over under markedly better conditions than Alexander did in 2013.
The University has only had six presidents since the LSU system was established in 1965. The average tenures of university presidents nationwide is 6.5 years, according to a 2017 survey by the American Council of Education.
Alexander’s replacement will be the second to hold the current position, which combined the previous roles of president and chancellor in 2013.
“It’s been a privilege to be your leader and to celebrate you hard-fought success,” Alexander said to University students. “You are forever a part of LSU history as the largest and most diverse student body on record."
*Anna Jones and Katherine Manuel also contributed to this report.