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Biondi targets SLU student newspaper [again].

Staffers of the student I newspaper at St. Louis University are wondering if Rev. Lawrence Biondi, the school president, is about to finally drop the ax on them when the school year ends.

They know that Biondi, who has ruled like an autocrat at the Catholic university for about 20 years, has long been unhappy with the way the newspaper--that obstreperous, noisy little University News--reports happenings on campus.

The buzz for months, from faculty and administration staffers, who are too fearful of Biondi to talk on the record, is that there may be a "July Surprise," in which the newspaper will be moved off campus, and may be told it can't use its present name.

A university spokesman, Jeff Fowler, said, "No decision has been made" regarding changing the operations of the newspaper. He later said that the university will have no formal comment to a list of questions submitted to Fowler for Biondi.

The questions were then left at Biondi's office, along with a request, for an interview. The questions asked for his views on the newspaper, what Biondi thought of the faculty adviser to the newspaper, if there are plans to move it off campus, why one year of free tuition for the editor was cut in half and why the adviser lost his $1,500 stipend.

Biondi responded in an email: "I don't trust you." He said that he was being prejudged and that the questions were biased. He said he had "past negative experiences with the St. Louis Journalism Review. SLU and I have never been given a fair shake (i.e., candid, objective, comprehensive, nonprejudicial reporting.)

"Avis Meyer seems to be successful in getting your ear and then he is allowed to give his side of the story, which influences your reporting to be portrayed in only one way--the Avis Meyer way. Avis Meyer said recently at a meeting on SLU Campus: 'I love the students but I hate the administrators,'"

Biondi wrote. I had been told that Biondi, 68, was thin-skinned and had a temper. But I tried a fourth time for an inter view, suggesting in an e-marl that those at the newspaper wanted some discussion of what might happen.

Still no go. This was at the same time that St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports columnist Bernie Miklasz criticized Biondi for firing basketball coach Brad Soderberg and said that Biondi "went into hiding. What a profile in courage this Biondi is."

But I certainly got Biondi's view of Avis Meyer, who at this point in our story we should properly introduce, and declare some disclaimers.

Meyer is a longtime teacher of journalism and writing at SLU and has been advising the newspaper staff for 32 years. Biondi had several other faculty or administrators appointed in recent years to be adviser to the newspaper, but none stayed with it, including the most recent, Julius Hunter, retired KMOV (Channel 4) anchor who is a vice president at SLU.

Meyer remains the unofficial adviser because the students come to him for advice and he shows up to help them put the weekly newspaper to bed each Wednesday night.

Meyer, 64, has a doctoral degree and a shelf full of teaching and advising awards, including a recent one from the College of Arts and Sciences faculty and students for being the best mentor on campus. He has tenure and says that probably keeps him from being fired by Biondi.

Meyer worked for 23 years as a part-time copy editor at the Post and is a temporary co-editor, with myself, for the SJR--as it goes through a transition period and search for a new editor. This apparent incestuousness certainly gives Biondi the right to question our motives for doing this story.

The Riverfront Times has done negative stories about Biondi, including a long one in 1999 that said that despite his revamping of the campus and boosting SLU's endowment, the enemies he made along the way called him "a Jesuit bully" who uses profane language, ugly politics and hardball tactics to control subordinates and grab property. Biondi wouldn't be interviewed. The RFT was banned for a time on the SLU campus, students said.

That same RFT article quoted Biondi's admirers--alums, donors and businessmen like board member Kim Tucci--as saying, "Biondi's done a great job" shoring up the campus and saving the city's central corridor.

The Post named Biondi Citizen of the Year for 2005, citing his determination, energy and vision in spending more than $500 million to transform the campus. He said SLU could become the best Catholic university in the nation by 2010. The SLU endowment has gone from $141 million to more than $900 million.

Biondi's latest success was in getting the Missouri Supreme Court to confirm a ruling that allows SLU to gain $8 million in tax-increment financing for the new arena it is building. (Biondi wants SLU's basketball team to be in the top 50.) SLU argued that it was not really a religious institution (despite all those crucifixes on campus) because the majority of its board members were lay persons. This same reasoning was used when Biondi sold the university's hospital and argued that Vatican approval was not needed.

During Biondi's nearly 20-year reign at SLU, the University News has covered the many controversies involving him, including the hospital sale in 1997 and Biondi's fight with Archbishop Justin Rigali over it.

Other stories: Biondi's revising the newspaper's charter in an attempt to give the administration more control over editors and stories; having his picture appear 22 times in an alumni magazine; hefty increases in parking fees; firing of two popular priests and various other administrators; a $75 fee to graduate (rescinded); and how a homily by Biondi was identical to one given a year earlier by a priest in California.

Biondi can be charming when buttering up people for donations or other benefits. And it's a treat to see him drive around campus on his golf cart. But he has a biting sarcasm that offends some on campus. His criticisms of the University News are usually conveyed by his underlings.

Student editors-in-chief have felt threatened with loss of their year of free tuition, which was initiated by Fr. Paul Rienert about 35 years ago. One editor, Lee Quarles, got his stipend reinstated only after the local media reported that Quarles was losing the stipend, apparently because the newspaper had editorialized against the hospital sale.

The current editor, Diana Benanti, learned when she returned to campus last August that her year of free tuition was cut in half. It has put a dent in her ability to pay for her senior year next fall. She is considering filing a suit to challenge the cut and loss of free summer classes. She was told by the administration that she and the head of the Student Government Association were being cut so that leaders of other student groups could share in the free tuition grants.

But she's more concerned that the newspaper will suffer in student participation, readership and ad sales if it is forced off campus. The University News pays its own way, through sale of ads. The newspaper also owns the equipment to produce the paper, making it partially independent of university control.

"A decision has been made on our fate, but we haven't been told," Benanti said. "They tend to do these things after graduation." She said that certain administrators have told her off the record that the move is going to happen

She says that Biondi wants to get rid of Meyer, whom he blames for "anything negative we print. Our job is to report on government, and that's the administration in our microcosm.

"I have the utmost respect for him (Biondi). We're both Italian," Benanti said. "I have a picture of him in my room in Springfield (IL) ... I don't understand why we're such a threat. We're just kids, learning how to do journalism."

Meyer said the student journalists have been responsible and added, "I'm proud to be associated with them." The paper regularly wins awards, and scores of students have gone on to important jobs in the media.

"Biondi has done marvelous things for our campus, and terrible things to people," Meyer says. He adds: "Can anyone imagine Boston College, Georgetown, and Notre Dame tyring to kill off the student paper because one man, the president, is annoyed?"

"He (Biondi) wants the paper to essentially be a PR bulletin for the school. It's not what we are," Meyer said. "He thinks the paper makes the school look bad. Mistakes are sometimes made, but nothing that's ever serious, or involving lawsuits. These kids are 20. They sometimes make mistakes, but they get corrected."

Did Meyer say he hated the administrators?

"I probably said something close, like--'I love the kids and hate administrative crap'.... something like that. I said it in a private meeting, not attended by Biondi," Meyer said.

Avis Meyer is a subject in this feature. He is also one of the guest editors of this issue. The editorial board of advisers unanimously decided that in spite of this apparent conflict of interest, the urgency of the situation requires publication of this feature, with Avis Meyer kept out of the loop in the assembly of data for this article.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Lawrence Biondi, St. Louis University
Author:Malone, Roy
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Geographic Code:1U4MO
Date:Apr 1, 2007
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