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Legacy of leadership: Authement ends tenure at UL

Research, technology emerged as cornerstones under his direction

Marsha Sills • msills@theadvertiser.com • July 1, 2008

On Monday, he walked out of the university’s administrative building for the last time as its leader.

"I’ll come in on Tuesday to clean my desk," he smiled and looked at the paperwork on his desktop and the framed memorabilia leaning against a wall that he’ll take with him.

"That’s if Sherry cooperates," he said jokingly, referring to Sherry Young, his secretary of 23 years.

The work still wasn’t done at 5 p.m. as Authement took care of business that needed his signature before the end of the fiscal year Monday.

"Life continues," Authement said. "It’s the last day of the month and the last day to spend money."

One of those matters included finding money for the desperately needed and long anticipated renovations to one of the campus’ oldest academic buildings, Girard Hall. The project was approved in last year’s capital outlay bill and has $3.8 million attached to it, but $5 million will be needed, according to architects. Today, the decision was made to use $1.4 million of the university’s building use fee paid by students to help push the project along.

"It would be in planning mode another 18 months if we do nothing," Authement said.

But now, decisions like that rest with another man – Joe Savoie, who officially begins work as UL’s sixth president Wednesday. Savoie served as the state’s commissioner of higher education since 1996 and prior to that was a vice president in Authement’s administration.

In 1973, Authement became the university’s acting president and a year later, was officially appointed by then-USL’s management system board.

During Authement’s tenure, the university has grown in academics and research to become one of only three Doctoral II institutions in the state. LSU is the only Doctoral I institution, but Authement has challenged Savoie to work toward changing that.

Authement’s work with the university isn’t done either.

He’s vowed to become a fundraiser for the university and also has a desire to return to the mathematics department, where he started teaching at the university more than 50 years ago. Authement’s service would be with no pay because the terms of his retirement prevent him from being on the state’s payroll for the next year.

Authement is his governing system’s designated "dean of presidents" and his wisdom will still be called upon, said Sally Clausen, former UL System president who began as the state’s new higher education commissioner today.

"He instinctively seems to know what will or will not be appropriate to legislators," Clausen said. "He almost predicts to a number what will and won’t pass and I relied on him and depended on him on such issues that such a person who’s lived long enough and has sage advice to offer."

Particularly on money matters.

"I feel good and I guess very, very appreciative that I can go out without any financial questions for the university," Authement said. "As one who served the public for a long time, I feel good about that."

Clausen credited Authement’s fiscal responsibility with helping the university advance its academic goals.

"He’s handled the toughest of questions from people who have accused him of being quote too conservative, yet through the oil crisis he was the only one with money and the only one giving faculty raises because he was quote too conservative," Clausen said.

Finding money for faculty, even during the most dire budget cuts, has been a challenge that Authement has worked to make possible. One thing Authement has said he hopes history records as his legacy, is the university’s survival during the budget cuts after the oil bust in the 1980s and the investment in faculty and academic programs. Other accomplishments he sees as major events that will continue to nurture the university’s future include the development of the research park, increasing the university’s assets and the university’s name change.

"It is impossible to measure how much he’s done for the university," said Dan Rosenfield, UL dean of enrollment management.

For 23 of Authement’s 35 years as president, Sherry Young has been the president’s secretary.

"He’s just a special person," Young said. "He’s always willing to listen to all sides of the story. He doesn’t make rash judgments and makes well thought out decisions. He’s been receptive to ideas that we have."

On Monday, Authement spent time taking visits from colleagues. He stopped into his academic vice president, Steve Landry’s office to chat for a few minutes.

"When I joined the administration in 1990, I figured I’d be really lucky to work with Dr. Authement for a few years," Landry said. "Now at 18.5 years later, I’m seeing it really happen and it’s with mixed emotion – excitement for him and then, appreciation for all the contributions he’s made."

When Authement announced his retirement in April 2007 during a UL System meeting, it took even his closest administrators by surprise.

And again, it was without fanfare that Authement ended his last day as the president of the system’s largest institution.

"Quite frankly, that’s his style," said Julie Dronet, UL’s director of public relations who also chaired the university’s retirement recognition committee. "We had some remarkable events throughout the year to make him feel recognized and appreciated and also to give our community a sense of his history and what he accomplished."

And there were still more accomplishments to relish in during his final year.

"The one thing I’m happy about right now is the tuition increases," Authement said. "God knows this university needed it because we’re the lowest."

Authement said the university’s tuition was $600 a year lower than the state’s other two Doctoral II institutions, UNO and Louisiana Tech, which equated to a $9 million deficit in tuition revenue for the university.

"The budget next year will be unbelievable," he smiled. "It’s a good time to leave when that has happened."

And on Wednesday, he’ll likely be back to wish his successor well. He’ll also have some work to do at the house he and his wife, Barbara built and their first home in four decades that doesn’t have a UL address.

"I’ll be unpacking, hanging curtains and getting some rest," he said. "I’m going to miss it. No question about it. I’m waiting for the down time to set in – when I don’t know what to do next and have no friends to talk to across the hall."

They’ll now be the opportunity to develop those relationships he’s had to keep professional as the boss of those he spends the most time with every day and as the leader of the community’s university.

"Over the years, I had to limit those relationships. I hope to rekindle those friendships and lead a more normal life," he said.

The country’s current longest serving public university president still has lessons to share, Clausen said. The new state commissioner was mum about the issues she hopes to tackle and adopt as her projects in her new role. She’s yet to meet with her full board or staff, she said.

"I like to do a little more listening before I talk…," Clausen said. "Dr. Authement taught me that."

Authement has seen UL rise to prominence in the fields of technology and research during his tenure.

Authement has seen UL rise to prominence in the fields of technology and research during his tenure. (Photo courtesy of UL Archives)