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Colleges and Universities

Rebounds of all sorts renew Jesuit St. Louis U.

NCR Staff
St. Louis

When Jesuit Fr. Lawrence Biondi became president of St. Louis University 10 years ago, he found it hard to distinguish the campus from its inauspicious surroundings.

Like several other Jesuit urban universities, it was situated in a deteriorating part of the city. The campus offered little protection against encroaching urban blight and street crime. An architectural mishmash, the campus "lacked boundaries," Biondi said.

So, it seems, do his dreams and drive.

The priest, widely admired here of late for his accomplishments, is known privately around campus as "the Italian stallion," tip-off to his hard-charging ways. He is credited with turning a depressing collection of aging buildings into a remarkable oasis -- and doing much to revitalize midtown St. Louis in the bargain. "We have become an anchor to the city," he says without apology.

And, he vows, there is more to come from this sometimes controversial president who has been described publicly in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as "aggressive and visionary" and privately as "brash," "sincere but naive," and "a street fighter."

Born to Italian immigrants from Lucca, Italy, in the Tuscany region, Biondi blends Italian sensuality with a free-and-easy demeanor and a disarmingly direct conversational style. Those qualities make him approachable and engaging, but also mask what, by his own admission, is a resolute drive to raise the national reputation of the university -- a drive that has led him not only to improve the campus, push the St. Louis Billikens basketball team into the NCAA, upgrade faculty salaries and add academic programs, but also to fire a succession of administrators, including nine vice presidents in 10 years.

"They weren't capable," he says flatly when asked about the turnover.

"When I first got to St. Louis, I saw a number of needs as I walked around," he said. For one thing, he noticed that "the campus didn't have any distinctive markings for the general public, let alone the student."

He didn't hesitate for long. He began a program of buying, building, razing and renovating, to the tune of $330 million (from donations and bonds) so far. He has added 39 acres and 30 buildings and defined campus perimeters and entrances with wrought iron fencing and archways supported by brick posts. Parking lots and streets that once cut through the campus have been turned into broad pedestrian promenades, anchored at their axis by a tall new clock tower. Tiles decorated with the university logo, a stylized fleur-de-lis, trim brick entrance posts and architectural features across the campus blend old and new.

Anchor restored

Historic old buildings have been beautifully restored, most notably St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, spiritual anchor of the campus, and DuBourg Hall, home of university administration. Both are a century old.

Wherever he could, Biondi has gobbled up surrounding property and replaced asphalt with expanses of lawn sporting fountains, sculptures and lavish plantings (19,060 flowers in 1996, boasts a university brochure). He even got the city to apply the school's color, bright blue, to fire hydrants, traffic light standards and a nearby off-campus overpass.

The overpass runs along two of the five city blocks that separate the medical school campus from the university's main campus -- blocks to the south that Biondi has designs on acquiring to eventually link the two campuses.

Biondi acknowledges that he was able to get off to a running start in 1987 thanks to his predecessor, Jesuit Fr. Thomas Fitzgerald, whose major task was to recoup from some financial problems in the early 1980s. Biondi inherited a school operating in the black, and five years later announced a $200 million fund-raising campaign, due to end in December. One controversial major donor is John Connelly, casino owner, who gave $1.5 million for a project and serves on the university board.

Biondi also inherited some turf battles -- intolerable "fiefdoms," he says, among the university's various programs and schools. Sources say that tug-of-war was a factor in some of the administrative changes. Recent efforts to bolster unity resulted in a plan to build a $12 million home on the university's main campus for Parks College of Engineering and Aviation. The school was formerly (and happily, according to students and faculty who balked at the move) situated on the other side of the Mississippi River, in Cahokia, Ill.

Also in the works is a new $15 million building for the School of Allied Health Professions, a $6.5 million expansion and renovation of the law school, construction of a "student village" of garden-style apartments, and a 14.5-acre public park on newly acquired ground. It will include tennis courts, a softball field, a putting green, a lighted walking path, a picnic area and, as beneficiaries of Biondi's Tuscan tastes have come to expect, water -- in the form of a 1.7-acre lagoon.

A few years ago, part of a former Jesuit seminary was turned into a museum to showcase contemporary religious art. Other galleries have been added. Recently Biondi renovated an existing 81,000-square-foot recreational center, a complex that already was ranked by the National Intramural Sports Association as among the top 20 such facilities.

Just north of the campus, an entertainment district has independently developed apace, giving home to the St. Louis Symphony hall and several live performance centers. Grand but dilapidated old theaters have been carefully restored, turning a once-dying area back into a regional magnet.

Aspiring to be first

Academically, Biondi aspires to make St. Louis University first among Catholic schools, a goal that a skeptical administrator on campus labeled "a pipe dream." (According to the most recent rankings by U.S. News and World Report, a handy, if often challenged measure, St. Louis University falls into the second tier of national universities, whereas Notre Dame, Georgetown and Boston College rank in the first 50. Notre Dame just kicked off a fund-raising campaign for $776 million, nearly four times the campaign ending in St. Louis and coming just six years after a $465 campaign ended in 1991).

"There's no need to continue the building of the last 10 years," Biondi told NCR. "We would like now to focus on academic excellence."

It is no surprise that his efforts have sparked criticism.

For example, when plans to renovate the 100-year-old university church were announced, some alumni organized to head it off. Among the concerns was that the church would lose its traditional features. But when the updating was unveiled in 1991, a tasteful blending of new with old, all but the most diehard critics fell away.

With his goal of higher visibility in mind, Biondi announced (to snickers) soon after he arrived in 1987 that he wanted the university's basketball Billikens to rank among the nation's top 50 collegiate teams.

In 1992, he showed their coach the door, hired a replacement, Charlie Spoonhour, and arranged for home games to be moved to a much larger auditorium downtown. In 1994, the Billikens played in the National Collegiate Athletic Association Tournament for the first time in 37 years. They did it again in 1995, and last year played in the National Invitation Tournament. Naturally, fans have increased. Last season, attendance for home games ranked 18th among 93 schools in the NCAA's Division I.

As for academics, Biondi says he has been upgrading faculty salaries, programs and technology right along, although some faculty still carp that he is more concerned with cosmetics. However, even some of those concede that the improvements have boosted morale.

New programs have been added and a few faculty have been lured away from prestigious institutions. The average salary for full professors has grown in 10 years to $72,700 from $45,100. Endowed professorships have increased fivefold, to 24 from 5. Eighteen journals are published at the school, up from 10. Biondi has plans to spend $4 million on technology.

The university's endowment (at $550 million in December, up from $206 million in 1991) is 55th largest among U.S. schools. Further, the university is one of only three Catholic universities to be designated a Carnegie Foundation Research Institution II, based on doctoral degrees granted and federal funds funneled into research. Biondi isn't satisfied. He says he aspires to the highest designation, Carnegie Foundation Research Institution I.

Worldwide niche

Among immediate goals, he said, is to upgrade laboratories and computers needed for scientific research. He also wants to develop a program of ethics across the curriculum, continuing yet another campaign of his: to strengthen the school's Jesuit character. Such a program would give the university "a real niche in higher education worldwide," he said.

"Every university president wants one thing for graduates -- competence in their discipline," Biondi said. "After that, you can draw a line in the sand. We can be different because of our Catholic, Jesuit identity. We want our students to have a set of Jesuit, Christian values," including a commitment to service, he said. (See related story, page 36).

Biondi's "build-it-and-they-will come" philosophy is paying off in number and quality of students. This year, St. Louis University enrolled its largest freshman class in nine years: 1,128 students. The average ACT scores of incoming freshmen is 25.7 on a 36-point scale, marking an upward trend but lagging well behind Notre Dame's average of 30.

One area where criticism of Biondi has been slow to die is his taste in statuary. His penchant for fountains and sculptures has prompted both good-natured jokes and critical derision. For example, "The Bather," a nude nymph reclining amid falling water has been nicknamed "the Floozie in the Jacuzzi." The fountain is part of a plaza where a bank building once stood.

Robert Duffy, cultural news editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, gave the university high marks for its "enveloping warmth and graciousness" and for a "stunning" refurbished three-story Pere Marquette Gallery in the 100-year-old administration building, but dismissed the Biondi-led sculpture campaign as "sincere ... relatively innocent and naive," in some cases "embarrassing" and even "good for a laugh."

Biondi's defenders say he chooses the sculptures (including some of males, who, as Duffy points out, have lost their loincloths) with an eye to engaging the students, not the art world.

Another complaint: Some students and faculty wish Biondi would spend less time away from campus fundraising and serving on boards. He serves on the boards of the city's major cultural and civic committees. The student newspaper has christened him "Father Beyondme." He simply tells them all of his efforts are in the university's best interests and ultimately in theirs.

When criticized, Biondi can be alternately insouciant, petulant or scrappy, depending on the issue and the source. He admits to colorful language, recently telling a Post-Dispatch reporter, "I'm a linguist, you know. I think damn and hell are wonderful words."

In general, an early chorus of naysayers and tail-draggers has grown quieter these days. As one faculty member said, "He's made some mistakes" in terms of his public image, "but he always lands on his feet."

He is particularly sensitive about the number of female professors and administrators, saying he wants more.

"I have a deliberate policy of trying to get more females into administrative positions," he said. He is pleased that five of 12 deans are women and that at one point in his tenure as president four of 10 vice presidents were women. (The current number is two.) Full-time female faculty are 31.2 percent of the overall total; 42 percent of the total hired in 1995; and 31.2 of the total hired in 1996.

Biondi said officials from other urban Jesuit institutions have trekked to St. Louis in recent years with an eye to campus improvements at home. Among schools represented: Marquette University in Milwaukee, Seattle University, Rockhurst College in Kansas City and Loyola University in Chicago, where, before St. Louis, Biondi spent 20 years as professor and dean. He earned a degree in classical languages at Loyola in 1962, the first in a Jesuit string of degrees, including a PhD in sociolinguistics, licentiates in philosophy and theology and a master's of divinity.

Meanwhile Biondi has been courted for top spots at his Chicago alma mater and at Boston College. He says he declined invitations to apply. He professes to love it here and to have no plans to move on. In the past two years, a press that tended to dismiss the school (favoring the more prestigious Washington University) has returned his affection with glowing reports.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorialized last year about the building boom and proclaimed, "St. Louis University deserves public appreciation and the continued cooperation of city and civic leaders."

Earlier this year, amid civic hand-wringing over the city's image, lack of direction and racial divisions, Biondi wrote an op-ed piece for the newspaper, promoting the region's strengths and urging commitment to addressing its problems. "I believe in St. Louis," he wrote and asked, "Why do we embrace the bad news at the exclusion of the good?"

Jesuit Fr. Charles Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, said Biondi is "highly esteemed" among Jesuit administrators. "Certainly [the university] has made a lot of progress in being both a university committed to its urban setting and at the same time attaining national stature. That's a difficult thing to achieve and they've had great success in doing that."

National Catholic Reporter, September 26, 1997