The Trust Factor

In 1990, David Manuel's departure to San Antonio was a major loss. Manuel was a professor of economics at UL Lafayette for 12 years before ascending to dean of the College of Business Administration, serving admirably for four years. Manuel earned a reputation for his keen insight into the local economy ' and his understanding of UL's ability to be a community and financial leader for Acadiana. Ten years after his arrival at St. Mary's University, Manuel was named vice president of academic affairs. He also has a Ph.D. in economics, rounding out his work experience and strong research background and making him a seemingly strong contender in the search to replace outgoing UL Lafayette President Ray Authement. On Oct. 3, however, when the search committee narrowed to five the field of candidates to replace Authement, Manuel's name was not on the list ' a glaring omission that has perplexed many in Lafayette's business and education community and caused even more mistrust of an already suspect selection process.

"I think candidates with better qualifications were skipped over," said Dr. Bob Gramling, a UL sociology professor, soon after the finalists were announced (visit to review their qualifications). Like search committee member Dr. John Meriwether, the UL Faculty Senate's rep who would only say his top five were not the five chosen, Gramling declined to comment on anyone specifically. Paul Hilliard, however, did not mince words. "The lack of serious consideration of David Manuel's application is like the love of God ' it surpasses all understanding," says oilman Hilliard, a tireless UL supporter who has donated millions of dollars to the university.

As The Independent Weekly was going to press, public interviews of the five finalists were just beginning to take place at the LITE center. We can only hope each candidate gets a fair shake, but we have little doubt that either Louisiana Commissioner of Higher Education E. Joseph ("T-Joe") Savoie or Vice President of Academic Affairs Steve Landry will ultimately be the person the search committee recommends to the full UL System's board of supervisors, which is scheduled to vote on Authement's replacement Dec. 7.

This year-end deadline looks disturbingly like a concerted effort on the part of the search committee ' headed by UL System President Sally Clausen and including Gov. Blanco-appointed board of supervisors members ' to rush this replacement through while Kathleen Blanco is still in the governor's mansion. It is impossible to overlook the influence of the governor and her husband, longtime UL administrator Raymond "Coach" Blanco; Authement's surprise announcement came only a month after Blanco said she would not seek re-election, fueling speculation that the Blancos and Authement had been working behind the scenes in deciding the new president.

Sadly, that is the very reason the search did not yield a broader and more qualified field of candidates. There is a serious lack of trust plaguing this process, and some search committee members have privately acknowledged that potential candidates were unwilling to apply because of this issue alone.

There is no room for political maneuvering in a decision that is so critical to the future of our community. If Authement's 34-year history is any indication, the person who is named to this post may have a lengthy tenure, despite that the average term of a university president is five years.

Clearly, avoiding the appearance of favoritism was the impetus for opening up the process up to public scrutiny, which included two community hearings to seek input on qualifications, disclosure of all applications and public participation in the finalists' interviews. "The fact that nobody trusts this process is their problem, not ours," says Hilliard, who blames the "open process" for the paltry 38 applications. Like Stuller Inc.'s Chuck Lein, himself a former university president, Hilliard is steadfast in his belief that more qualified candidates would have stepped up if given assurances of privacy ' specifically sitting presidents or chancellors fearful of compromising their current jobs. "Did the process they actually followed improve the trust of the community?" Hilliard asks. "It was conducted about as well as FEMA handled Katrina." Hilliard and Lein argue that the application process should be scrapped in favor of the way searches are conducted in the private sector (and a recent one for the president of the LSU System).

However, the argument can also be made that there was plenty of leeway for Clausen, as well as the high-priced consultant who was hired to recruit candidates and others on the search committee, to do just that ' have private conversations with potential applicants. Once the candidate is comfortable with the situation and his or her chances of becoming a finalist, he can then decide whether to apply. How aggressive this search effort was is unknown, but it certainly was not fruitful.

We also aren't convinced this "transparency" somehow discouraged qualified candidates unwilling to compromise their existing jobs. The University of Florida is a model of openness that has not hampered its ability to attract good candidates. In fact, in 2003 then-LSU System President William Jenkins was a finalist for president of that university, and despite that he did not land the job, Jenkins remained exceptionally popular at LSU. In fact, he was so highly regarded that when he unexpectedly announced in early 2006 his plans to step down, local officials and legislators cried foul ' saying he was being forced out to pave the way for LSU System Chairman Bernie Boudreaux's girlfriend at the UL System, Clausen, to ascend to the post. Amid that heated controversy, Boudreaux resigned from the LSU board.

On Oct. 3, the UL search committee could have made the decision to continue looking for qualified candidates but instead immediately went to work narrowing the field to five. Plenty of time remains for this transition to take place; Authement is not going anywhere. He'll be president at least until next spring and wants to continue on in a fund-raising capacity after that.

It's unfortunate that so few community and business leaders truly believe a legitimate search has taken place for Authement's successor, but it's extremely disappointing to see only a couple speaking up about the questionable process. Perhaps by uniting on this issue they could wield their influence to slow the process and convince the committee to expand the search. Instead, we cannot shake the feeling that Authement's successor was decided some time ago, long before his April retirement announcement, long before three candidates traveled to Lafayette for this week's interviews.