Cover Story

Newsmaker of the Year

by Nathan Stubbs

His final years were dogged by controversy, but outgoing UL Lafayette President Ray Authement's pending retirement will mark the end of 50 years of service that leaves an indelible mark on the community.

Pat Rickels remembers Ray Authement's 1974 appointment as USL president well. The university had recently gone through some turbulent years with ongoing financial struggles, student integration and a raft of NCAA violations that shut down its basketball program for two years. Looking for new direction, the Board of Supervisors turned to a young Authement, a former math professor and rising star among school administrators who had a reputation for being by the book and above suspicion.

"We all thought very highly of him," says Rickels, a UL English professor and longtime director of the university's Honors Program. "He had a Ph.D. in mathematics, the queen of the sciences. He had really distinguished himself academically ' which is not something you can say about all of USL's presidents."

At his first faculty address as president in 1974, Authement set the tone for the remainder of his administration. He stressed a focus on community relations in order for the university to be able to meet its long-term growth needs. Making clear where the fruit from this labor would be going, Authement noted that of the $796,000 in new monies the university was acquiring that year, he was putting $767,500 directly into faculty salaries. Authement also set the lofty goal of reaching a level where 60 percent of the university's faculty held doctorate degrees and made it known that USL would continue to be a trailblazer with its newly established computer science program.

"Those of you who have been at USL for a while know," Authement told the faculty crowd, "that we were never really part of the great affluence that came to universities and colleges after World War II. But even though we were not, we continued to grow to be innovative, to be a major university in many areas and to remain the leading university under the state board of education in spite of having to operate under austere budgets. We have the dedication and cooperation of the members of this faculty to thank for this."

Thirty-four years later, the 79-year-old university president has plenty to look back on. Earlier this year, Authement announced he would retire from his post. He is the longest'serving president of a public university in the United States, and this year also marks Authement's 50th year of work at the university, where he got his start in 1957 as an associate professor.

While his tenure hasn't been without controversy, especially in recent years, Authement leaves behind an enormous legacy. He is responsible for helping envision and build the vast majority of what is today UL Lafayette, including the Cajundome, the school's new $10 million computer science building and the university's research park, which includes the LITE facility and National Wetlands Research Center.

UL alum Gov. Kathleen Blanco remembers how the university was still largely a community college back in the 1970s when Authement took the helm. At that time, the university had a student body of 9,000, most of whom came exclusively from the Acadiana area. (UL's current student population is approximately 18,000.)

"He had great academic vision," she says. "He knew how to drive areas of excellence. And that takes a lot of fortitude. There's a lot of campus politics that goes on. He had to convince that faculty, and they understood and went along with his program that achieving areas of excellence would bring the university out of being a little country school with limited vision and limited education for its students and into the modern world. And they understood that and supported it. That's very hard to do. There are many campuses that have never been able to get that far down the road."

Raised in the small fishing community of Boudreaux Canal, just north of Cocodrie, Authement was the first in his family to graduate high school and go to college.

"He worked his way up from an old country town near Chauvin," recalls Louis Michot, who served as the state's superintendent of education from 1972-1976. "You had no hand-me-down educational examples in many cases. He was just a little country boy from Terrebonne Parish, came to school and worked his way up."

From his early days as a professor at the university, Authement displayed a dedicated work ethic and a passion for academics. Pat Rickels also began teaching at UL in 1957 and remembers she and Authement taught on the far end of campus, in an old converted World War II barracks known as "lil' Abbeville."

"The saying was that it was closer to Abbeville than to Lafayette," says Rickels. "They had a little stove in each classroom, and you had to turn it on [for heat]. There was no air conditioning."

In these humble conditions, Authement earned a reputation as a tough teacher but one who was more than willing to put in extra hours to help students through his class.

He also wore polished shoes, kept his hair combed neatly back and drove what Rickels remembers as "big impressive black mafia-looking cars."

UL Dean of Students Raymond "Coach" Blanco ' Gov. Blanco's husband ' remembers how Authement, as a faculty advisor, was willing to back a group of students buying the university's first PKT fraternity house.

"I think it was on Cherry Street," Blanco says. "[Authement] couldn't more [afford to] buy it than the man in the moon. That was a big thing in those days to take a note on something and depend on the students to pay for it."

Della Bonnette, UL's vice president for information technology, took Authement's Theory of Matrices class as an undergraduate senior back in the 1960s. Authement often began the class by working out intricate mathematical proofs, showing off the relationships between numbers. After writing them out on the blackboard, Authement would stand aside to marvel at the solutions, noting, "Isn't that beautiful?"

"We all thought it was beautiful," Bonnette says, "which is sort of unusual as a feeling from students in the classroom, but he brought us along. His love for mathematics showed through. He was an absolutely fabulous teacher."

On weekends, Authement and his wife, Barbara, would often take his big Chrysler, with its IAM4USL license plate, up to the famous oil center department store Abdalla's, where Authement befriended owners Ed and Herbert Abdalla. The Abdalla brothers took Authement under their wing, and before long the young math professor began taking part in meetings in Abdalla's back office, with other notable regulars that included former Lafayette Mayor Ray Bertrand, Daily Advertiser publisher Richard D'Aquin, and Sheriff Carlo Listi.

In a 2005 story on Abdalla's closing, Authement told The Independent Weekly, "On several occasions, [Ed] called me to a meeting in his office. There was some problem that needed to be solved. We would meet in his back office and wouldn't leave until we had, you know, a solution or a direction to take. We nicknamed Ed 'Cagey' because he was so brilliant in terms of logic, and he knew the community very well. Herbert was out mingling in the community; Herbert would know what was going on in the various clubs."

The Abdallas became longtime supporters of the university, and Authement symbolically thanked the family by naming a building in its research park Abdalla Hall in 2001.

As Authement rose through the ranks of the administration, Rickels says he displayed a visible devotion to his job. "It just consumed him," she says. "It was just what he did."

As president, Authement pushed the faculty, insisting that all professors be active in both teaching and in their own academic research. "He wanted everyone to be teaching and to keep learning," says Eddie Cazayoux, the recently retired UL architecture professor. "And I found that helped bring a lot of research into the classroom and really benefited the students."

Under Authement, UL achieved several notable accomplishments, including establishing one of the country's first master's degree programs for computer science, adopting selective admissions, becoming the first Doctoral II university in the state, and being re-named the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Though Authement has always had a reputation of having few or no hobbies outside the university, Raymond Blanco remembers Authement occasionally leaving the office behind. "The idea that he never did anything is not a true picture," Blanco says. "He did have recreation." Blanco says that Authement used to sometimes go along on fishing trips around his old Terrebonne Parish home. Blanco recalls one trip where their group was staying at a camp in the marsh. "We had some crazy people down [on that trip]," he says. Authement went to bed early and when he awoke, he found himself sharing a bed with a collection of redfish heads and other scraps from the previous day's catch.

"He was a good sport," Blanco says. "I know he probably thought we were insane some of the time. He wasn't a hell raiser, but he certainly went in that element and mixed and fit in very well. People would be surprised. That's a part of him that people don't see or don't know."

Money has always been tight at UL, and what Authement is perhaps known best for is being a shrewd, hands-on business manager. When he took over in the mid-70s, the Legislature still decided year to year how much money colleges would receive ' a lobbying game that LSU typically dominated. "His idea was always, 'Do what we do better and we'll be recognized,'" says Raymond Blanco. "He never believed in going down and playing the game in Baton Rouge. He always thought that if you did what you're supposed to do and had the merit that you would get rewarded. And sometimes that worked, and sometimes it didn't, but he didn't like that part of the equation."

Louis Michot adds that Authement was, by nature, never much of a promoter. "He's not really a big P.R. man and spokesman," Michot says. "He didn't go around back-slapping and shaking hands. Ray is a laid back, work-behind-the-scenes type of guy."

However, some colleagues note that Authement can be very personable and persuasive when he wants to be. Rickels recalls a time when she went to see Authement after he denied a honorarium payment to folklorist Barry Ancelet to speak at the Honors College Congregation. Authement said the university was no longer paying honorariums to its own faculty. Rickels told Authement that because past faculty members had been allowed to receive the honorarium, she had already told Ancelet he could have the money and Ancelet was planning to spend it on things in his folklore program. "I was embarrassed," Rickels says. "I didn't know what to do."

Authement calmly asked Rickels if she would like for him to handle it. He then promptly got Ancelet on the phone and proceeded to shower him with compliments, telling him how much he meant to both the university and the community. "And Barry just melted," Rickels recalls. On the phone, Authement told Ancelet, "I know you'll understand and you won't mind because you aren't going to be doing it for the money."

When Rickels later relayed to Ancelet that she had witnessed the phone call, he told her that Authement was very slick, but made him feel so good that he really didn't mind not getting paid.

Money was often at the forefront of Authement's decision-making. In the 1980s, after funding formulas were finally adopted, UL had the oil bust to cope with, which put funding at below-average percentage levels. During this time, Authement would frequently tell faculty, "As long as oil stays above $18 a barrel, we'll be OK." Every year at faculty meetings, Authement would bring out detailed charts showing revenue sources and where they were being dedicated. "They played those numbers back and forth," says Cazayoux. "It always seemed like we never had the funds that we really needed because the state was poor, because LSU was taking all the money, for whatever reasons. The money that we really needed to do it right was never there. So it was always this shell game with money that I thought he was magnificent at. What that man did with the money that he had amazes me. He always took care of the faculty. The maintenance of buildings suffered, but he tried to keep everything else going and keep the faculty happy."

Bonnette found out quickly just how deeply familiar Authement is with the university's budget. In one of her first administrative meetings, Bonnette requested one of her staff be given a promotion, prompting Authement to ask what the employee's current salary was. Bonnette had to guess at the figure, and was quickly embarrassed when Authement recalled the exact salary off the top of his head. "We have 1,500 employees, and for him to know an individual's salary is pretty incredible," she says. "I learned very early in the game that if you have a meeting with him or attend a meeting which he's in, you better have your facts in a row because you know he's going to know what those facts are."

As part of his obsession with the budget, Authement was always notoriously tight with expenses. Even university groups with their own self-generated funds, such as the honors program, had to get Authement's written permission to so much as buy a pizza.

"It almost drove me crazy," Rickels says. "We had the money and we had to say, 'Please, daddy may I?' People thought they could slip by that [rule] ' oh no they couldn't."

One year, Rickels attempted to send in one request letter for a whole semester's worth of activities for the honors program. It was promptly returned with a note indicating she would need to send in separate letters for each request.

Authement's tight control of finances was also brought up in a recent institutional review of UL conducted by consultant James Fisher. The report says it's not customary for travel and equipment purchases to go through the president's office and suggests all faculty hiring be decentralized to the vice president of academic affairs. Still, many faculty members note that it is hard to argue with Authement's overall success in managing the university's finances.

"If you look at the Fisher review," Bonnette says, "what comes through really loud and clear is that we are an institution that has a very solid financial underpinning, that's both in respect to our reserves, capital outlay, and with respect to our growth in the research area and in our fund raising. All of those things are really direct results of being a good fiscal manager."

Under Authement, the university has also seen its foundation endowment soar from some $600,000 to nearly $140 million. While the bulk of this money was raised by friends of the university including the late Alfred Lamson and the more recent team of Bill Fenstermaker, Clay Allen and Matt Stuller, Bonnette has no doubt that their efforts were aided by Authement's sound fiscal management.

"People give to the university because, in my mind," she says, "they trust and have faith in the institution, which is something [Authement] brought."

In recent years, Authement's administration has come under fire for both his handling of the University Art Museum and the university's horse farm property. In both cases, his administration was accused of operating in a vacuum with little outside input. (UL Director of Public Relations Julie Dronet-Simon did not return phone calls and an e-mail requesting an interview with Authement for this story.)

In the case of the horse farm, The Independent Weekly won a public records lawsuit against the university last year after Authement refused to release an appraisal on four acres of Girard Park property he hoped to obtain for UL as part of a controversial land swap deal for the horse farm. The suspect business deal, later called off by Authement, hurt the president's reputation among students and faculty, many of whom do not want to see the horse farm property developed.

Authement recently asked the UL Board of Supervisors for permission to put the horse farm property out for bid, and it's highly likely he's working on a deal that will ultimately decide the fate of the bucolic 100-acre tract before he leaves office ' a move that, depending on the outcome, could restore some of the damage the issue has done to his reputation.

Authement's leadership also came into question following his public fallout with both the UL Art Museum's original director, Herman Mhire, and its primary benefactor, oilman Paul Hilliard. More recently, some faculty members have questioned the logic behind Authement's decision to build a 400-car parking garage at the busy intersection of St. Mary Boulevard and Girard Park Drive.

Despite these controversies, Authement's reputation remains intact in the eyes of many of his peers.

"I disagree with some decisions," says Bonnette, "and certainly will tell him, but I have never doubted that his decision was based on what he was convinced was best for this university. He'll gather information from as many sources as he thinks is necessary and then reach a decision, but you always feel that he heard what you had to say to him. So I don't think you can ask for anything more in someone who is your supervisor."

With all that Authement has put into his career, it was the job itself that helped him through the most painful time in his life. Several friends note that when Authement suffered the loss of his first daughter, Kathy, to leukemia in 1999, work was a needed distraction. Family also served as a source of rejuvenation for Authement, who has been very close with the three children Kathy left behind: Philip, Lauren and Michelle, as well as his latest grandson, Jacob, the first child born to younger daughter Julie Johnson, who lives in Atlanta. (Authement does not officially plan to step down from his position as UL president until spring 2008, after he hands a diploma to Philip during graduation ceremonies.)

When Authement does leave office, it will be bittersweet for many at UL. "It's a passing of the banner," says Ray Blanco. "No one will do what Ray Authement did because no one is going to sacrifice their entire human being as he's done over the years. It just doesn't happen. I think his legacy is you do with what you get and you make it work. He built the foundation for this university, and he led the way by example."

Louis Michot notes that you only need to look at the length of Authement's term to measure his success. "In spite of all the things he must have put up with in 30-something years, he's still there," Michot says. "In a political climate like Louisiana, he stayed head of a public institution for one-third of a century. He must have been doing something right."