Cover Story

Savoie Faire

An interview with new UL Lafayette President E. Joseph Savoie

photo by Terri Fensel

When Dr. E. Joseph Savoie — aka T-Joe — officially took over as president of UL Lafayette two weeks ago, the proceedings had none of the solemn air that so often accompany the hirings of public and elected officials. There was the ever-genial Savoie, surrounded by well-wishers, faculty and students alike, genuinely moved by the outpouring of support. And rather than beat a hasty retreat into closed-door meetings, his “ice cream social” with students set an early tone for a man who’s promising to be open, accessible and always engaged on behalf of the university.

His arrival on the job is a homecoming of sorts, as Savoie earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from UL, and previously worked for UL in a number of administrative roles prior to assuming the post as Commissioner of Higher Education for the state of Louisiana. He’s held posts in the Mike Foster, Kathleen Blanco and Bobby Jindal administrations, a testament to both his likability and his political savvy.

He takes over the helm of UL with something to prove, as some doubters have called his appointment a fait accompli, given his longstanding connections to former president Ray Authement and both Kathleen and Coach Ray Blanco (who still holds the position of vice president of student affairs at UL). But in a wide-ranging one-on-one interview in his Martin Hall office the day after he took over as president, Savoie addressed that question — and many others — head-on. 
What’s your No. 1 objective or priority?**

My responsibility is to make sure the university remains secure and makes significant progress and expands its services to students and the community. Dr. Authement left the institution very sound financially and academically; he was frugal in his management style, and because of that, we have some resources. But I think now we can invest in bringing the institution to the next level. The president’s responsibility is not only dealing with the issues that are going on right now, but to think about positioning the university for the future. And a lot of people don’t deal with that, because there’s going to be an emergency every day. You need to deal with those emergencies, but you also have to be thinking about what may be here beyond you so you can prepare the institution for its next stage. Universities and schools and churches outlive individuals who hold seats at any time.

I often think of Dr. Fletcher, who back in the 1940s invested in all the property that now the south campus is on — the Cajundome, University Medical Center research part, the community college, the technical college —that’s all the land that Dr. Fletcher bought. He was highly criticized for that, and almost lost his job, because he was buying all the farm property way out of town — Johnston Street was a shell road. People thought he was wasting money. If he hadn’t done that, this place would have stopped in the 1960s. So those are the kind of things that I have to try and have parallel thought about, and how to constantly think about longer-term implications.

How would you describe your management style?

I have been lucky in many ways in former positions to have very talented people around me. It’s more than luck, because I look for very talented people and try to surround myself with support and make sure everyone understands the goals and where we’re trying to go. I see my job as trying to make sure we’re staying on track, but providing resources that people need to do their job, and knocking down barriers to them doing their job. Otherwise, I just stay out of their way and let them do their job. When that happens, you multiply your effectiveness because you have lots of people going in the same direction and have the ability to move — it’s not just one person.
Are there a few examples from your former positions that you could cite that support that description?**

Even when I was back here on the association for University Advancement, we made some pretty significant strides back then. I think we quadrupled membership and started bringing in 10 times more money. We had a very active organization; we started the legislative affairs area, and moved from what used to be a little newsletter to a nice magazine in La Louisiane, and reorganized in recruitment and scholarship offers — all because we had good people doing good stuff. In my most recent position, Louisiana’s made some very significant strides forward in higher education. We have more schools taking a college preparatory curriculum, our retention rates are up, our graduation rates are up, our research proceeds from the federal government are up. We’re awarding more degrees. In almost all of those areas, we’ve been in the top 1-5 states in percentage of improvement and gotten national recognition for that fact. We still have a long way to go — this is generational work — but as far as improvement goes, I don’t think you’ll find a state that’s improved more in higher education in the last decade, including in funding. When I started in 1996, funding for higher ed was something like $680 million, and I think in the last budget it was probably $1.6, 1.7 billion. That didn’t happen because we out-politicked everyone. Maybe at the beginning there was some of that, but I think it happened because of growing confidence in how we use our resources and producing results.

We implemented admissions criteria at four-year schools; we opened six new community colleges and reorganized the community technical college system; and we have a need-based-aid grant program, which is vitally important for Louisiana considering our demographics and participation rates. We were like 47th in the country in participation by low-income high school graduates, and that’s improving. A lot of that has to do with not taking the right courses in high school, which admissions criteria helped, and TOPs did as well. Affordability is the No.1 issue for lower income students. I was at a regional education conference this past week, and they do an annual report on the status of the state. One of the issues was affordability, and they had a pie chart of the total cost of a four-year school: the average cost, the average income level, and how people pay for that. Pell Grants cover a certain amount, there are work study programs and the expected family contribution. Then they had the slice of the pie that was the gap — what’s short for the average family. The gap was $2,186 dollars per year. And the Pell Grant is $2,000 a year, so the Pell Grant fits right in that slot. So in Louisiana, at least, affordability is not really an issue. Understanding where you can access these various things is still a challenge. So we’re trying to do some of that through career-course development in secondary education for 10th graders. They’re actually going to build in filling out federal forms for financial assistance so they can get an official report and really see how much money is available, and they can start applying for all that as a sophomore and junior in high school to take away that affordability fear, which keeps a lot of kids from thinking that they can go to college. When they don’t think they can go to college, they’re not going to take the courses they need to take to prepare for it.

All our teacher improvement efforts were significant. That was through a partnership with the commissioner of secondary education. Cecil Picard and I worked on that for six or seven years. Education Week ranked Louisiana first in the country in its efforts to improve teacher preparations, and last year we were third. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave us an A, and there were only three states that got a grade of A to get in their efforts to improve teacher preparation and improve the quality of school leadership.

I don’t think there’s any single thing I’m most proud of, but I was most encouraged about the attitudinal change toward higher education and its recognition of its responsibility to think outside of itself and take responsibility for its local school systems and partnering with economic development funds.
You talk about how this is generational work. How much were you able to do in working with secondary education and elementary education sources?**

As I mentioned, Cecil and I in the late 1990s started working on improving the way that colleges prepare teachers. There were some critical junctures in all of that process. We had a big conference where there were 700 teachers, and all the faculties and deans of colleges and education. And this is when the accountability effort was just beginning in Louisiana and people were starting to be publicly critical of what was happening in the public schools. And at that meeting, I got up and said, “We’re just as responsible as you are. Higher ed has a responsibility — we prepare the teachers who are teaching the kids we’re getting these results from. So we’ve got to do a better job of preparing the teachers for the realities of our classrooms.” That didn’t go over real well with some of the deans and faculty, because it was a lot easier to point a finger elsewhere. That began a logjam. We worked with the Department of Education and BESE [the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education] to change the certification of teachers. We had to do that so we could force reorganization of teacher training programs. Before that, you could get certified for K-8, and another certification for 9-12. We shifted that to pre-K to first grade, then 1-4, then middle school ... We got very specialized. Then we started requiring anyone who was going to be a discipline-based teacher, like a math teacher or history teacher, to have a major in that field. You used to just get certified in secondary education. Now we were requiring 30 hours if you wanted to be certified in that area, and then you have to go through continuing education in order to maintain your certification, or you lose it in five years like other professions.

We worked on that for almost a year. Finally it was coming before BESE to approve that change, and it was a major change. I think there were 12 members of the BESE board. I sat in the audience next to Cecil, and he wrote on a little piece of paper, 8-4. We had eight votes for approval. So he said, “Don’t talk long, don’t say a whole lot, don’t give anybody anything that they can dispute or get into an argument on.” So we got up and made a little three- to four-minute presentation. All of a sudden all the forces of status quo came out of the woodwork. We had the School Board Association, the Bus Drivers Association, all the teacher’s unions, we even had the dean’s council making these impassioned pleas on why the board should do this. And they went on for three or four hours. And every once in a while Cecil would go, it’s 7-5 now or 6-6 [for the votes]. Then we said we needed a break. So we went back to the coffee room and the guys were back there. And Cecil starts telling me who we were losing. And one of them was one of Gov. Foster’s appointees. So I said to the guy, “Didn’t Gov. Foster appoint you to support his agenda?” He said yes, and said the governor never called him for anything or asked him to vote one way or another. I said, “If he did, how would you feel about that?” He said, “Well, the governor appointed me, and if he felt strongly about something, I ought to reflect his wishes if I could.” So I turned around and hit the phone and called [Foster Chief of Staff] Steve Perry’s office, and it just so happened the governor was standing there. I told him what was going on, and handed the phone to this person, who started saying, “Oh, yes, sir, I certainly will, governor.” He handed the phone back to me and I told Cecil, “Let’s go.” We went back out there and won by one vote.

So a lot of times all the best thoughts and plans and consensus building efforts can come down to whether you can get a vote or not. And we did, and that broke the backs of all those who were intent on maintaining the status quo. We beat all the doubters, and once that happened, then all sorts of things kept happening and everybody got on board.

We developed and started implementing a value-added system where we actually assess children in each classroom based on their previous history of their annual assessments — what their expected growth rate would be from an experienced teacher. We took experienced teachers and our prepared new graduates and the impact they had. Typically you expect that new teachers are generally not as effective as experienced teachers; it takes three to five years for them to learn the ropes. But we had half of our schools this past year where new teachers coming out of our schools, their children made more progress than the children taught by experienced teachers. What that took was seven, eight years of dogged determination and consistency and not accepting second-class performance.

Your BESE story shows your political savvy. You worked in different roles for the Blanco administration, the Foster administration and in the new Jindal administration. You’ve been able to navigate those waters, and call it an unfortunate reality, but politics does play a big part in the education system. What do you credit your political ability to?

Good question. I think to be successful in a political environment, you’ve got to have credibility, and that has to be earned over time. I had experience with the legislative process prior to the commissioner’s job because one of my jobs here at UL was in legislative relations. I started doing legislative work here probably in ’82 or ’83, right after the name change. There was a lawsuit over the name change coming up in the next legislative session, and at the time the university didn’t have anyone representing them in the Legislature. I was working in the alumni office when Dr. Authement said, “We don’t have anybody. Would you go?” So I just started bouncing around the Capitol building and made friends with Rouse Caffey, who was chancellor of the ag center as LSU — he may have been one of the best higher ed politicos, and the ag center has operations all over the state. He was a master politician, and he and I got to be friends through Armand Brinkhaus, who was a senator at the time. He showed me around, and we started having some successes.

But higher education itself was pretty dysfunctional — those were the days of annual budget cuts, and the Board of Regents, which is supposed to be the coordinating board, was ineffective. The systems and schools were fighting among themselves — it was a zero sum game. Somebody did something, you just tried to steal it back from ’em. After a year or two, I figured that the big player was LSU, and I got to be friendly with the LSU people, and we started doing things together. Later in the ’80s, Mike Foster was elected senator, and he didn’t do very much on the education side, and when issues about higher ed came up, I was the one who communicated that to him, so we developed a relationship. So when he was elected governor, he asked me to serve on his transition team, and one of the things that we proposed at that time was a single board, because the system was falling apart.

The person who was serving as commissioner at that time announced his retirement, and the governor’s office had a recommendation to the Board of Regents. The board rejected that person, and Sally Clausen and I were on the transition team with Steve Perry and Roger Ogden, who was on the LSU board and the transition team. We went to the governor’s office to tell him that the board was not going to accept this guy, and asked, “What do you want us to do now?” He looked at me and said, “Why don’t you go do that for a few months until you figure out what we’re going to do.” That was July of ’96. I’d never thought about that position before, and it was a temporary assignment for four to six months — that became 12 years.

Getting back to the credibility issue, I had knowledge of the process and some familiarity with the players. Gov. Foster gave me credibility, because he was a reform governor and he was focused, and it was clear that he was trying to depoliticize the system. He had reform-minded legislators in his leadership. And the fact that he tapped me to lead his reform agenda gave me credibility. Then my job was to make sure I acted in a credible way. You develop relationships, and people either trust you or don’t trust you. People realized they couldn’t run to the governor to get me to change something, because he’d say, “Do what he says.” And then you have to use that judiciously.

Gov. Blanco was pretty much the same way. We presented a plan which built on the Foster reform, and that’s the other thing about the long-term effect. It takes at least a decade for a reform movement to grow roots. And it takes longer than that to change the culture to where people who are making decisions have come into the system under the reform mentality, and so that’s what they do. The hardest thing is changing the movement, because you really have to change the players, and that takes time. Gov. Blanco, to her credit, she said, to Cecil and [me], “We’re doing all the right things, and I want you to take it up a notch; do more of the right things, and I’ll try and get you the resources to do it.” She essentially adopted the Foster reforms and continued to support it and continued to fund it. When you have that kind of support, you can make lots of things happen. In Louisiana, it all comes down to the governor.

photo by Terri Fensel

Did Gov. Blanco’s decision not to run for re-election and knowing there would be a changing of the guard factor in at all in your decision to seriously consider the UL Lafayette presidency?

No. Before I took that job, I never thought it would last as long as it did. The more I got into it, the more I learned and enjoyed seeing the results. In those kinds of positions, the average length is about four years. I go out the third-longest serving in that position. I know that job and that business and those things, and felt comfortable in that job. Because I’d been there quite a while and there’s usually such high turnover, I’d get three or four calls from other states, and I never seriously considered any of them.

When this thing opened up, I had to think twice about it. Working out of town, but living here the whole time, probably the driving reason is I have a 15-year-old son who still likes to talk to me, and I’m not sure how much longer that’ll last. The downside of that job was the time-consuming long hours, and you add two hours commuting on top of that. My son was usually asleep by the time I got home. I’d wake up in the morning and have breakfast with him and bring him to school, because that hour was all I had. This job gave me that opportunity to be home.

For a guy who’s politically sensitive, you also seem unafraid to speak your mind when you feel strongly about something. I was a bit surprised to see you speak out against the creationism and intelligent design bill recently.

My perspective is not so much creationism vs. other things, but it’s the notion that secondary schools need to make sure people have a certain knowledge base and are prepared for the next level, and the students don’t have the maturity to discern a whole lot of things at that stage. That’s what college is for. I don’t think teachers should be able to espouse their personal opinions or beliefs that may be inconsistent with the agreed-upon body of knowledge that you’re trying to make sure the kids have as a basis to move on to the next level. That’s gonna jump up and bite somebody. Because just as it allows people to express their opinions on creationism, it allows them to express their opinions on lots of other stuff, too.

What were the main things you’re hearing from the students? The impression of a lot of university presidents is that they’re up in the ivory tower, but you’ve already spent a lot of time with students here at UL.

One of the more exciting aspects of this kind of work is the opportunity to interact with very bright people: the faculty and young people who want to learn. Students will question you and they come up with all kinds of ideas. You can either dismiss them or you can try to work with them toward a better understanding of things.

I was real impressed with the level of their concern. They want to talk about safety issues, housing, why the dorms are in such bad shape, summer school availability ... They also asked about the Walk of Honor, and why there hasn’t been any bricks laid down since the class of 2003. These are good, solid, mature questions.

What about the horse farm property?

The horse farm is a significant asset for the university — in effect a land endowment. We have an obligation to protect that endowment for the future. At the same time, we’re responsible for helping the community achieve its aspirations. I’ve been engaged in some important conversations which hopefully will lead to a solution that everyone should think is reasonable.

I want to ask you about two statements you made yesterday on your first day on the job. You said, “It is more efficient to be administratively lean, but it is not as effective to be administratively lean.” You also said, “It may be time to take out a loan and move a little faster.” Can you expound on those comments?

The loan quote was a little quip. When Dr. Authement was here and I was here with him, that was during some of the worst economic times for education in the history of Louisiana. He did what he needed to do protect the core responsibility to the university — and that’s the quality of its academics. How do you do that? Well, you shave everything else and protect the core as best you can. You don’t spend money on maintenance of buildings, or replace equipment until you absolutely have to. You trim back your administrative costs so people can manage the enterprise and the teaching and learning parts to keep the thing running on the business side. You trim support services back as best you can. In order to make sure you’re doing the best job of that you can, you make all those decisions yourself. You want to see everything before you approve it. And thank God he did that, because the university not only survived, it made some progress during that period. But that was his context — and it almost forced some of his style. It took us 26 years to get back to full funding, and he’s actually left reserves. Not only was he very frugal, he had money left over. He made very targeted investments. The Board of Regents would approve all sorts of finance or housing projects, parking garages, and [universities would] pay them off over time. This parking garage over here was paid for with cash, so there’s no debt on the thing.

I don’t have 34 years here, and I want to make things happen. So I may have exaggerated a bit about the loan part, but I want to be aggressive in making progress and be smart about it. I don’t want to take unnecessary risks, but be aggressive. That means we’re going to have to do what everyone else does. We can support a lot of bond payments if we had to.

On the administrative side, what I meant by that is it’s not uncommon here for an administrator who has whatever title to have that job and one or two other jobs. Each one of which is a full-time job. What it means is you may not be giving as much attention to one of the jobs, if they had someone else responsible for it. So that’s very efficient, but they’re not producing as much as two people could. On the academic side, the deans, for example, I don’t know of a four-year campus in the state that doesn’t have assistant deans. What happens is, because you’re one of the major public institutions, there’s all kind of bureaucratic responsibilities. And if you’re a dean filling out paperwork all day, they’re not thinking about, “How do we improve our college? What kind of person do I need to bring in for development? What’s on the horizon? What’s the latest thought in this discipline? I need to go to this conference to learn more.” They can’t do that, because they’re stuffing paperwork all day. Are they being efficient? Yeah? Are they being effective? Probably not.

In the institutional review conducted before Dr. Authement stepped down, there’s some strong language about the university’s athletics. It notes, “We recommend that the next President reexamine ULL’s intercollegiate athletics programs and ask pointed questions about their long-term revenue sources and expenditures, ULL’s conference affiliation, and especially the institution’s competitive level in football.”

But again, it’s the context. If you’re trying to protect your core, that’s an add-on. You want it out there, and people want you to be as high-level as you can, but if you have to choose ... and that’s what happened. So I think Dr. Authement supported athletics as best as he could.

Athletics is an important component of a university. In many ways, it’s like the front porch of the university: a lot of people come and visit you who wouldn’t come for any other reason. You can change your community’s enthusiasm, community pride. Look at the women’s softball team. The whole town was rooting for the softball team, many of whom have never been to a softball game, but they were rooting for those girls, and it’s a way for them to connect to the university and support the university. In modern-day major athletics, because of all the media attention, you get exposure around the country that no one would even know you existed without that exposure. So when you’re out trying to recruit faculty or students or trying to connect with some corporation that you’re trying to draw to the state, it gives them some familiarity. Just this past week, a state senator from South Carolina congratulated me, and he said, “I’m familiar with the school; y’all came up here and beat us in the NCAA regionals two years ago.” So he knew it was legitimate and existed, because we beat his school and we must be pretty good. He didn’t know anything else about us, but his impression was we must be a pretty good place.

I think the general consensus in the community is they want us to compete at the highest levels. My opinion of that is if we’re going to be there, we need to be competitive. Which means that we have to win games, that our facilities have to be comparable to those that we compete against, and that we would be the upper echelon. We have to be comparable in our conference if that’s where we choose to be. So I’ve been talking with [Athletic Director] David Walker and some of our biggest sports supporters, and we’re going to do everything that we can do to have a chance to have a successful program that people can be proud of and engaged with and support. Now that will be dependent upon the support. The other hat that I just took off, I put restrictions on the state funds that can be used to support athletics, and I still believe that. It can’t just be university funds; it has to be private funds to supplement that. So we’ll do whatever we can on the university side, but we’re going to need support. So I think we have to be successful and package where we want to go, what it’s going to cost, and what it’s going to take to get us there to try and generate support.

The word “fund raising” is used repeatedly throughout the institutional review, and it also calls for a new capital fund-raising campaign to begin immediately. Do you agree?

If you’re going to be competitive in the very competitive market of higher education, you’ve got to have resources. The state’s only gonna come up with so much, the students are only going to come up with so much, and you’re only going to get so many dollars from federal grants, so you’ve got to get those private dollars to supplement that. The schools that everybody thinks are successful, all have significant success in fund raising. The amazing thing is, this university’s raised an amazing amount of money in endowments — $450 million; that’s an impressive number for a place that wasn’t doing anything for a number of years. And probably for public institutions, it’s probably second in the state.

This is a progressive, comparatively wealthy community, and the university is the backbone of its economic health. There needs to be that partnership. We’ve shown we’re a worthy investment, but people aren’t just going to drive by one way and just give you money. You have to ask them for it, and you have to have something that’s valid and worth investing it. So we have room to be more aggressive on the fund-raising side, and not just in athletics, though we haven’t done much in athletics. The focus was almost exclusively on academics. We need to have athletics in the mix, too, because we can’t make it just on ticket sales and public funds.

From the very beginning when your name was mentioned for the presidency, a lot of people said, we know it’s going to be T-Joe because of your history with Dr. Authement and the Blancos. What do you say to someone who has that impression? What do you say to them to quell any questions they have that you got here because of your political connections?

I would hope that people can judge my accomplishments by my record. I can’t help the fact that I’ve had a long, successful tenure and that I’ve built up credibility with people that make these kind of decisions. I can’t help that. Because I’ve been around, I’ve developed relationships, and people are familiar with me and have some confidence in what I can do. I can’t help that I have that experience. If someone wants to dismiss that as politics or the good ol’ boy network, that’s one definition. I prefer to see it as people were comfortable with me and confident in my ability and they thought I was a pretty good, responsible choice.

If they hired someone from out of state, the reaction from some quarters would have been, “They just hired someone who doesn’t know the local landscape.”

That’s the rule. You can have a third for you and a third against you. The mistake that people make, politicians, is they need to worry about the other third. The middle third is the one that makes the difference. People get all exercised and all worried about the third that’s against ’em. I ignore ’em, and I focus on the ones who haven’t made up their mind yet, and hopefully my performance will win them over.