The University of Incarnate Word (UIW) board leadership faces a defining moment Monday afternoon when trustees convene to confront the crisis precipitated by longtime President Lou Agnese Jr.
It’s never easy coming to terms when a powerful, long-term leader loses his way and becomes a major liability. That is exactly what has happened at UIW: Agnese, the legendary architect of the modern Catholic university, has now become a threat to the university’s reputation and future.
No one can deny that Agnese has been a remarkable builder of UIW.
At age 33, Agnese became UIW’s eighth president in 1986 at a time of decreasing enrollment and demographic challenges. His marketing efforts helped grow the university from 1,296 students in 1985 to 10,984 in 2015, making it the third-largest private university in Texas, according to the university website. During his tenure, UIW opened campuses in China, Mexico, and Germany, created a Division I athletics program, and added doctoral programs in pharmacy, optometry, physical therapy, nursing practice, and business administration. The university will also be opening a School of Osteopathic Medicine in 2017.
What’s equally notable is his management style: Agnese didn’t manage as much as he ruled, silencing campus critics, surrounding himself with administrators who knew better than to challenge him, even taking on the sisters whose order founded the university and are the nominal proprietors. When the official president’s residence, an off-campus Terrell Hills home, was deemed subject to local taxation, Agnese sold it and had a new presidential residence built atop a UIW parking garage. A penthouse with balconies on all four compass points, its Brackenridge Park view reminds visitors of Central Park West in New York.
Agnese was a visionary who had big ambitions, saw them to fruition and, along the way, reaped the personal benefits, becoming the longest-serving university president in Texas, if not the nation. When he took a long sabbatical a few years ago the university supposedly paid for his round-the-world luxury cruise. Even if that is not true, it speaks to the power of perception about his prerogatives.
We are now witnessing what happens when a too-powerful autocrat becomes the victim of his own hubris, and finally is called to account for his indefensible behavior. It is, in the classic sense of the word, tragedy.
While trustees must feel like a black cloud now hovers over everything good that has been done during the Agnese era, the university’s current crisis in leadership offers an important teaching moment. Trustees can agree to do what is best for the university and limit further damage to UIW’s reputation by setting it on a healing path. That means bringing Agnese’s long career to a close.
It also means being honest and transparent. This is not the time to couch decisions in legalese and press releases written by consultants. Trustees should not obscure the fact that they are acting in response to Agnese’s racist and denigrating remarks and his episodes of failed leadership.
Agnese might be on medical leave, but unless trustees can demonstrate a confirmed medical condition that explains Agnese’s aberrant behavior, it will be more prudent to demonstrate there are consequences for inappropriate behavior, especially if one holds a trusted leadership position.
The board leadership, led by Chairman Charles Lutz, should send an unequivocal signal to the university community and to San Antonio at large: everyone, regardless of rank or power, must live up to Incarnate Word’s defining values. No exceptions.
What are those values? Here is an excerpt from the UIW Mission Statement:
“The University of the Incarnate Word is a Catholic institution that welcomes to its community persons of diverse backgrounds, in the belief that their respectful interaction advances the discovery of truth, mutual understanding, self-realization, and the common good.
The University of the Incarnate Word is committed to educational excellence in a context of faith in Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God. Thus, through a liberal education the university cultivates the development of the whole person and values of life-long learning. To that end, faculty and students support each other in the search for and communication of truth, thoughtful innovation, care of the environment, community service, and social justice.”
Here is a one-sentence excerpt from the message from UIW President Dr. Lou Agnese Jr., also posted on the university’s website:
“We welcome people of diverse backgrounds in the belief that their respectful interaction advances the discovery of truth, mutual understanding, self-realization and the common good in our increasingly complex society.”
There is nothing in the recent public conduct of Agnese that shows respect for the university’s mission or his own pledge. He has been uniformly disrespectful in his public comments to faculty members and to students of color enrolled there.
After the news broke of his uncontrolled racial and political outbursts while acting in his official role as university president, Agnese lashed out at Lutz and the board, threatening them with a lawsuit and accusing them of ruining his reputation.
It was Agnese who has inflicted the damage on his reputation, not Lutz or others. He should take responsibility for his words and actions rather than resort to bullying behavior. It is Agnese’s obsession with absolute control that caused someone, somewhere along the line, to call Incarnate Word “Lou U,” and it wasn’t meant as a compliment.
The last time the UIW trustees faced a moment of truth, they failed to challenge Agnese or dig deeply for an honest version of events rather than accepting the “facts” as they were misrepresented to them by Agnese and other members of his administration.
I am writing, of course, about the December 2013 fatal shooting of honors student Cameron Redus by a campus police officer in an off-campus traffic stop that spun out of control. It could serve as a textbook case of bad policing and decision-making, made worse by equally bad decisions by Agnese and university leaders in the wake of the killing.
Agnese blamed the media, specifically the Rivard Report for our sustained coverage. Several board trustees, who probably had not even read our coverage, echoed Agnese’s attacks out in the community. Even some of the nuns approached me at public events to demand we stop publishing stories about Redus.
University employees stopped taking our calls and responding to emails, ceased to share press releases, and with a few exceptions, were not available for interviews on other stories unrelated to the Redus shooting. Last week, university employees even resisted, for some time, providing us with a list of current board members, which you will not find on the UIW website.
Agnese has built an A-list board of trustees. Why hide that from the public? We do not believe university staff suddenly decided to block our efforts to report on the university. We believe they were intimidated and ordered to do so. Last week when one of our reporters spoke with students on campus, he was asked: Can we be expelled for expressing our views or opinions?
The Redus family’s wrongful death civil lawsuit against UIW is still pending. What objective observers know and what will eventually come out is that Agnese placed his brother Michael on the UIW payroll as director of public safety.
What the Agneses do not want to admit is that the university brought on a bad cop when it hired Christopher Carter. The poorly trained recruit had stumbled his way through a decade of failed law enforcement employment, bouncing from one job to the next, rarely lasting a full year anywhere. He should have never been hired.
Even before the Redus shooting, Carter was a known problem to university officials for his middle-of-the-night entry into a sleeping co-ed’s dorm room and his extended stay there while supposedly investigating her illegally parked vehicle. The university failed to act on the family’s formal complaint other than to informally advise the co-ed to avoid Carter. It was widely known in university circles that Carter was a misfit licensed to carry a gun.
The Redus case was a terrible tragedy. Imagine your own unarmed son or daughter being gunned down for driving under the influence as he or she pulled into their residence within yards of the front door. Imagine the fatal shot entering your child’s body from the back.
The university could have brought the tragic Redus case to a close with an institutional act of contrition and a settlement two years ago. Instead, Agnese has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of university funds defending the indefensible. Redus’ parents are some of the most spiritual, selfless people I have ever met. Any money they receive would inevitably be spent on creating something good to ease the pain of something so bad.
This time, if the board chooses to bring the Agnese era to a close, it also should agree it’s time for reconciliation with the Redus family. It’s time to acknowledge that a poorly vetted hire led to a much darker tragedy.
Closure in the Redus case offers its own teaching moment for the board and for a university community in serious need of spiritual renewal. That teaching moment would serve as an example of humility, of penance, of the sacrament of confession, and then, with reconciliation, the power of forgiveness.
To renew the spirit of the Incarnate Word community built under Agnese’s leadership, the board will have to acknowledge it is now time for a new generation of leadership.
Top image: University of Incarnate Word President Dr. Louis Agnese Jr. Photo by Scott Ball.