King Alexander’s history: lessons from a twice-ousted president

After two forced resignations, exiled president tackles racism and selfishness undermining US higher education

May 19, 2021
Louisiana State University (LSU) winning football coach Les Miles was fired by F. King Alexander, which put Alexander’s tenure at risk
Source: Getty
F. King Alexander put his tenure at LSU at risk by firing winning football coach Les Miles (above) and tackling discrimination and privilege

Pushed out of two major US universities within two years, F. King Alexander (pictured below) is far from repentant.

Instead, the native of the American South is channelling his cross-country saga of perceived mistreatment and misunderstanding to fight a culture of corruption and racism he sees as crippling US higher education.

A son of two university professors, Dr Alexander left the presidency of Louisiana State University in 2019 after a six-year struggle against a state-wide governing structure that he saw valuing student athletics and white exceptionalism over academics and equal opportunity.

He then lasted less than a year as president of Oregon State University before news leaks back in Louisiana helped to resurrect some of LSU’s ugliest history of sexual abuse in its revered American football programme, and OSU faculty and students gave up on Dr Alexander rather than, in his view, learn the fuller story.

The Oregon resignation was “all about Louisiana”, Dr Alexander told Times Higher Education from his home state of Florida, where he’s spending time with family while finishing work on a couple of books. “And then Louisiana, it’s all about football – but more importantly, it’s about race.”

College football is a multibillion-dollar industry, with the south-eastern US its hotbed and LSU a perennial contender for the national title. Campus presidents distracted by sports donors and their political allies too often have trouble keeping the priority on academic and institutional well-being.

But Dr Alexander recognised that he committed a more fundamental sin in the eyes of LSU partisans than his ousting – albeit belated – of a championship-winning head football coach over allegations of repeated mistreatment of female students.

Instead, Dr Alexander said, the beginning of the end for his time at LSU came in 2018 when he implemented a “holistic admissions” standard that de-emphasised the importance of test scores and grade-point averages.

That change, he said, helped to erase a long-standing advantage in admissions for white and wealthier students whose families often had enrolled them in private schools that offered extensive standardised test preparation.

Before that, LSU accepted only 4 per cent of all applicants who lacked either a 3.0 grade average in high school or score of 25 on the ACT. And that small share went overwhelmingly to minority students who played football or basketball.

The policy change let far more minority students enter LSU, but it also attracted rounds of criticism – including from faculty and state-appointed overseers – who derided it as a lowering of standards. Leading voices of opposition included Richard Lipsey, a business owner who was at the time chair of the state’s board of regents for higher education, who accused Dr Alexander of tearing down LSU’s academic accomplishments.

F. King Alexander

Source: Karl Maasdam/Oregon State University

Dr Alexander rejected such complaints, calling them an attempt to maintain the “aristocracy of the old LSU”, and arguing that students who earned admission under the change tended to fare as well as or better than average. “What I ran into by doing that,” he said of the admissions shift, “was that the old LSU – the old white LSU – saw that their university was changing and looking more like the rest of the country, in Louisiana, and they went nuts.”

Such critics “were OK having the diversity exceptions as long as they could play football and basketball, and they could entertain them like the Roman Colosseum”, Dr Alexander said. “But if you didn’t throw a football or dunk a basketball, then we really didn’t want you at the university – that’s what they were doing.”

Dr Alexander also made a point of enforcing the federal law known as Title IX, which forbids discrimination based on sex in education. Even some of his harshest critics seem willing to concede that.

“King Alexander is really keen on Title IX – that’s one of his favourite issues, one of his claims to fame,” said Kevin Cope, an LSU professor of English. Professor Cope served as president of the faculty senate when it censured Dr Alexander in 2015 for firing Teresa Buchanan, an associate professor of education who had been approved for promotion to full professor.

Professor Cope was among the critics of the firing, seeing the reason – regularly using in class vulgar language that some students regarded as sexually harassing – as a needlessly protective overreaction.

Yet the subsequent LSU faculty senate president, Kenneth McMillin, an emeritus professor of animal sciences, wondered if he and his colleagues had been too hasty with their censure. Subsequent information – including details of Dr Buchanan’s problematic oversight of student teachers – seemed to validate Dr Alexander’s judgement at the time, Professor McMillin said.

“I’m not sure now in retrospect that he made the wrong decision,” Professor McMillin said of the president.

Lacking support within LSU, Dr Alexander made the decision in 2019 to seek a new job. With an opening at Oregon State, he had the chance to return to the west coast, where he served a decade earlier as president of California State University, Long Beach.

In his job interview at a nearby airport, Dr Alexander made clear those motivations, citing the backlash over holistic admissions and anticipating being forced to leave LSU within the coming year.

“That was his main reason – because he had tried to bring in too much diversity, too many changes at LSU, that the board had now had enough of him,” said one member of the hiring committee, Dwaine Plaza, an OSU professor of sociology.

But then, only months after Dr Alexander’s move to the OSU campus in Corvallis, he was sabotaged by the leak to a newspaper of years-old details of the LSU football coach, Les Miles, and his reported sexual advances on female students, tied in at least one case to promises of career advancement.

As Professor Plaza saw it, Dr Alexander faced the sexual harassment allegations about Mr Miles almost immediately upon arriving at LSU in 2013, and it would have been impossible for him to fire Mr Miles at that early stage and keep his job in a state where 100,000 people attend LSU football matches and top governmental officials interfere in team operations. Instead, he noted, Dr Alexander bided his time and then moved against Mr Miles when new problems arose.

But when details of the case emerged at OSU, both Dr Alexander and the campus community reacted poorly, said Professor Plaza, a past president of OSU’s faculty senate. Perhaps frustrated that LSU’s troubles had followed him 2,500 miles, Dr Alexander mounted a half-hearted defence, Professor Plaza said.

And OSU students and faculty, for a variety of reasons, did not give him much chance. Likely, Professor Plaza said, the community reaction could be attributed to some combination of post-Trump anxiety, Covid-driven isolation and suspicions tied to the #MeToo movement.

“Women certainly have every right and every reason to not trust men for dealing with their rights,” Professor Plaza said. But as a white male from the South, with the accompanying accent, Dr Alexander had an especially uphill climb, he said.

Among the failures of his OSU critics, Dr Alexander said, was their refusal to understand that Title IX complaints grew during his tenure at LSU because he actively removed barriers to filing them.

“It was easy for us, as an institution who didn’t know him,” to cast him aside, Professor Plaza acknowledged. Within just a few days, OSU’s faculty senate approved a vote of no confidence, trustees asked Dr Alexander to resign, and he quickly agreed to do so.

Among the ironies, Dr Alexander said, is that LSU’s faculty censured him for taking a stance against sexual harassment, while OSU’s rebuked him for allegedly not doing enough.

“It was a complete scapegoating issue,” he said. “They still don't know what I did wrong,” he said of the OSU faculty.

That is not a unanimous perspective. While at LSU “the great tail of the athletic department certainly wags the dog of the university”, Professor Cope said, Dr Alexander did not do nearly enough to fight back. Facing intrusion into his right to police athletics, Professor Cope said, “he never cried out for help at all”.

Professor McMillin disagreed. “My sense now is that he probably did as good as he could do, knowing the culture at LSU at that time,” he said.

Dr Alexander is absorbing the lessons of back-to-back presidential downfalls. While he considers career options, he’s working on two books, including one that traces a 50-year decline of US higher education back to the creation of federally subsidised student loans in 1972.

That might have seemed like enlightened policy, Dr Alexander said, but the effect was to harm students by giving states the licence to push higher education investments off on the federal government and by allowing private institutions to raise tuition to astronomical levels.

Among the results, Dr Alexander said, Americans aged 55 to 64 lead the world in their percentages with a college degree, while those aged 25 to 34 now rank 16th among the 30 countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. “That’s not the best system in the world,” and international students are rapidly figuring that out and choosing options elsewhere, he said.

And while members of Congress focus on the question of raising the value of the Pell Grant, the main federal subsidy for low-income students, they have largely ignored the inflationary effects of loan subsidies that raise federal payouts as institutions charge higher tuition, Dr Alexander said.

In that sense, he said, the exclusionary practices he battled in Louisiana were just a microcosm of the larger country, where people of the baby boomer generation enjoyed low tuition fees but were fighting to prevent future generations – especially those of racial minorities – from enjoying the same thing.

“The baby boomers, which I’m at the tail end of, will go down as the most selfish generation in the history of the United States,” he said.

Joe Biden is on the right track, Dr Alexander said, with his proposal for a federal-state partnership to share the cost of funding higher education. Mr Biden should not approve further Pell Grant increases without such an agreement, and he should order major loan forgiveness as a way of reducing the generational theft of wealth by the baby boomers, Dr Alexander said.

LSU, meanwhile, may be learning its own lessons from Dr Alexander, Professor McMillin said. One of the most encouraging signs, he said, was the just-announced hiring of William Tate, provost at the University of South Carolina, as the first black president of LSU.

With that, Professor McMillin said, there were hopes for hiring more black faculty and building on the fledgling gains in minority enrolment under Dr Alexander.

“Our culture seems to have shifted very rapidly” since Dr Alexander's departure, Professor McMillin said. “It’s gratifying to me,” he added. “Even if this is just a token step, sometimes you have to take token steps in order to make any progress.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Good fight: lessons from a twice-ousted university president

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