As a senior, a student organization leader and a member of the Billiken community, I feel obligated to share the following observations about the administrative practices of Saint Louis University. There is a prevailing myth on this campus that students are apathetic – a ridiculous notion that they lack any interest in acting for the betterment of themselves, their University, their community and their world. This myth is based on an observation of inaction among the student body, but it is a misguided conclusion. Inaction among the student body does not result from lack of interest or laziness. It comes from powerlessness. Students have been robbed of their voice on this campus. From our first day as Billikens, we are systematically instructed to keep our heads down and go about our business. We are not to make waves here. We are not to speak up. We are to remain silent.
This is not a product of a complex, faceless system. It is a product of several well-constructed tactics of SLU President Lawrence Biondi, S.J. He will not admit to using these tactics, and they cannot be found in your student handbook. Nevertheless, students will recognize them in their experiences here.
So here they are, Biondi’s Five Tactics for Keeping Students Powerless:
Over the years, students have organized and worked for change at SLU. Somehow, in the process of navigating SLU’s maze of departments, administrative policies and endless paperwork, their passion dries up. For student groups, organizing an event is a nightmare. Before approaching administrators with an event, student leaders may spend weeks or even months planning it. Paperwork with detailed information about the nature and purpose of the event must be submitted to multiple departments months before the event is scheduled to take place.
Students are then quizzed about the content of the event and often asked to make adjustments – which disrupt its entire structure. Whenever possible, student groups are pushed back to square one and forced to re-imagine the whole event – requiring weeks of planning and re-litigating the entire process.
Bureaucracy is not only a barrier to student groups; it is a hindrance for the entire student body. It is the force behind the University’s yearly housing fiasco and the headache that is the class registration process. Finding the right person in the right department to address an issue requires more research time than most students have time for and responses rarely address the issue in a timely manner.
Most problematic is that rules and policies are inconsistent and unreliable. Often, they are subject to change without notification, at the whim of administrators. When students become problematic for Biondi, all he has to do is enact a policy change to sweep their legs out from under them. This tactic is frequently implemented as a “spring surprise,” ensuring that any backlash fades away over the summer months.
Bureaucracy alone is not enough to control students. With enough passion and determination, a student may eventually succeed in untangling any bureaucratic nightmare. Avoidance allows Biondi to shirk accountability. When students have a concern or an issue they want addressed, they are never given an opportunity to meet with decision makers like Biondi; instead, they meet with their lackeys. Lower-level administers have no power to address student needs because they have no power to change policies. They are puppets with invisible strings. They are instructed not to reveal their puppet-masters, and they communicate with students in one direction: top-down. Their function is to stall and demoralize students. Unable to express their concerns to decision makers, or even know who the decision makers are, students are left running around in circles, never gaining any traction.
3. Saying “NO” without ever actually saying “NO”
In the process of being jerked around by lower-level administrators, students are never explicitly told that they cannot do something. They are told that there is something wrong with the way they are doing it, or they are asked to engage in a dialogue about how best to do it. This way, Biondi cannot be accused of censoring or silencing students because he never does so explicitly. Instead, he stalls them. He forces them to justify what they are doing until it is too late for them to do it in the first place. When students complain about this to anyone unfamiliar with Biondi’s tactics, the students are ignored because the issue is reduced to one of process rather than morality.
For example, Biondi did not originally ban the “Vagina Monologues” from campus; he merely encouraged Una to find a more constructive way of addressing the issue of sexual assault.
He said that the yearly performance was becoming “redundant,” suggesting that it would eventually be allowed on campus again if Una were willing to do something else for a few years.
This tactic allowed Biondi to portray Una as uncooperative when they protested the decision, drawing attention away from the reality that he did, in fact, ban the “Vagina Monologues”.
Perhaps the most infuriating use of this tactic occurs when censorship is masked as a concern for the well-being of the student or group. Often, rather than telling a student group it cannot have an event on campus, Biondi’s lackeys will tell the group that they want to help make the event more effective.
The group’s leaders are isolated and pulled into meeting after meeting, in which there is vague discussion about how to make the event more fitting to the group’s mission. Over time, the group attempts to adapt to these vague suggestions until the event, which looks nothing like its original design, fits Biondi’s arbitrary and hidden standards.
4. Control All Forms of Communication on Campus
A student may not hang a poster, hand out flyers, hold a meeting or even stand in the quad and make a speech without first going through a bureaucratic approval process. If the content of the communication does not meet Biondi’s standards, his lackeys will inform students that it may not be distributed on campus.
Thus, any attempt to organize students to combat Biondi’s tactics is easily thwarted by his grasp over these crucial forms of communication. While some media is still free from Biondi’s control (such as parts of The University News), he has made frequent and well-documented attempts to extend his reach over these pages through intimidation and even force .
5. Hide Behind Dogma
Perhaps the most reprehensible tactic employed by Father Biondi is his frequent use of the University’s Jesuit Mission in order to justify censorship. After four years here, I have seen the Jesuit Mission used in two ways – marketing and silencing. If it is not on a brochure, it is probably being used to shut down a student group or event.
Why does the Jesuit Mission require the silencing of students but never obligate the University to adopt environmentally friendly practices or hire union contractors? It would seem that the power to write the scope and definition of SLU’s Jesuit Mission rests solely in the hands of its upper-level administrators. A few individuals, faced with pressure from University donors and interest groups, have the power to decide the precise meaning of SLU’s foundational mission. What is frequently perceived to be a divinely inspired mission is actually a contrived tool of administrators who are in the pockets of donors.
Biondi’s tactics are effective and powerful, but ultimately flawed. Biondi’s objective is to rob students of their power, but his tactics do not achieve this. Fundamentally, they only serve to make students unaware of their power. Faced with such impressive obstructions to action, students are left with a sense that they cannot change things. Sadly, Biondi has succeeded in creating a myth of apathy.
He does not have to make us powerless because he has succeeded in making us believe that we are powerless. In my last days at SLU, I want to remind my fellow Billikens of one thing: We are not powerless.
We do not have to accept the status quo. This University works for us, and we have an obligation to demand better.
Never surrender your power – your passion and your conviction. Be persistent, be radical, be Billikens.
Thomas Bloom is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences.