The Rev. Lawrence Biondi, as outgoing president of St. Louis University, used his last monthly newsletter to take a final swing at a professor he’s battled for more than two decades.
The two-page rant, against Avis Meyer, was near the end of Biondi’s long missive to faculty, staff, students and others. But it was longer than any of the other subjects he discussed during his 25-year tenure as head of the Jesuit university.
Meyer outlasted Biondi’s attempts to dislodge him as unofficial adviser to the student newspaper, the University News. Meyer was ordered never to set foot in the newspaper’s office. But the student journalists respect Meyer and meet separately with him to get his editing advice for each issue. Meyer said Biondi blamed him for any articles he sees as critical of him or SLU.
In the newsletter, Biondi rehashed his criticism of Meyer, whom SLU sued in federal court for copyright infringement several years ago. Meyer had sought to incorporate the newspaper’s name when it appeared it might be driven off the campus. When this didn’t happen, Meyer relinquished the name. Nevertheless, Biondi instigated the lawsuit six weeks later, hiring a large law firm to go after Meyer. After 18 months the suit was settled out of court, with Biondi claiming victory and blaming Meyer, who had to spend more than $100,000 defending himself and give up $6,000 from a summer course he taught. (“I’m broke,” Meyer said). SLU, it is estimated, spent more than three times what Meyer did on the lawsuit, which a U. News cartoon called “frivolous.”
In a newsletter three years ago, Biondi wrote: “The court’s order shows that Dr. Meyer is responsible for all that has transpired … and led to a lengthy court case that the university would rather have avoided.” The U. News called this explanation “mean spirited” and noted Biondi never mentioned that Meyer had relinquished the newspaper’s name six weeks before the lawsuit was filed. And Biondi still didn’t mention that fact in his last newsletter attack on Meyer.
Biondi’s moves against the newspaper, and Meyer, had always been carried out by his subordinates. (The two men never talked to each other). Many SLU administrators were forced out over the years, including Joseph Weixlman, the provost who had to tell Meyer he was barred from the newsroom.
While members of the SLU’s board of directors saw the friendly and efficient side of Biondi, staff and faculty members expressed fear about getting on his angry side. Meyer openly called him a bully.
Yet many faculty members earlier this year rose up to produce a no-confidence vote against Biondi. This led to his announcement in May that he would resign the presidency, which he did as of Sept. 1. Still, there are reports that outspoken professors on Biondi’s enemies list were being punished through denial of ordinary pay raises, which Biondi controlled.
Biondi has called his critics “isolated malcontents.” He said he will take a yearlong sabbatical; Bill Kauffman, a Biondi confidant and general counsel for SLU, will be interim president, apparently until a new one is selected.
Biondi said in the newsletter he was responding to a letter to the editor in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in August by Charles Klotzer, founder of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Klotzer defended Meyer, criticized the lawsuit and called Biondi vindictive, uncaring and self-absorbed. Biondi wrote: “I wish to clarify for the general public and our own SLU community the comments in Mr. Klotzer’s letter.”
Biondi wrote: “The university sought to resolve the matter amicably and, in fact, participated in mediation with Dr. Meyer. Only after these attempts at resolution were unsuccessful did the university file a lawsuit.” Meyer disputes this, saying, “That’s not my memory of what happened. There was no purpose for the lawsuit. I had already relinquished the name. They wanted to ignore that.”
One former administrator, Phil Lyons, had to tell Meyer in the summer of 2006 that he was being removed as faculty adviser to the U. News, and that Meyer was being denied a $1,500 yearly stipend that came from ad revenues. Lyons said in an interview that he regretted what he was forced to do, especially since it came after Meyer’s grown son, Jason, had died of a congenital heart ailment on June 12, 2006.
At the time, Lyons was associate vice president for student development, chaired the U. News advisory board and oversaw the paper’s fiscal affairs. He said he requested that the action against Meyer be delayed because of the grieving that Meyer and his family were doing. An assistant to Biondi forwarded the request, but it came back that it had to be done without delay, Lyons said. He said he regretted doing it because he and the student journalists respected Meyer.
Lyons left the next year, after 15 years at SLU; he now is vice chancellor of administration and student life services (chief financial officer) at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie.
Lyons said the warring between Biondi and the U. News dates back to the time SLU sold St. Louis University Hospital, and many in the community and at the university criticized Biondi for it.
“Biondi is a shrewd businessman and the university has prospered for it. … Biondi’s impact has been on bricks and mortar,” Lyons said, while others at the university have influenced students and their development. He said Biondi was good at handling SLU’s finances, and the fact that he spent so much to go after Meyer indicated “this meant quite a bit to him.”
As for Meyer, Lyons said that, with his tenure protection, “the only one who can remove Avis is Avis. … He’s the only one to take a punch from Biondi and is still standing.”
Editor’s note: Meyer is on GJR’s board of advisers.