It has been an extraordinary year here at Saint Louis University. As has been widely reported by now, SLU’s president, Father Lawrence Biondi, announced his intention to resign Saturday evening, in a surprise announcement at a gala celebrating his 25th anniversary as president of SLU. In a park across from the arena where this gala was taking place, an ‘Alternative Gala’ was organized by critics of the university president. Spirits were high at this Alternative Gala, but nobody there knew the results of a university Board of Trustees meeting that had taken place earlier that day, where Father Biondi’s fate was a central topic of discussion after nearly a year of numerous votes of ‘no confidence’—by both faculty and student governance bodies—against Father Biondi. The body count had already been high this year at SLU—one law school dean, the university’s (chief) vice-president, the chair of this Jesuit university’s theology department, another law school dean, the chair of the university’s Board of Trustees—and everyone was waiting to see if the president himself would join the ranks of the university’s disappeared. Everyone would soon find out that, indeed, Biondi himself would soon be gone.
In this last post of mine before I sign off from my guest stint at the Faculty Lounge, I want to discuss what we might beneficially take from this past year at SLU. I have observed the events of this past year both as a member of SLU (I’m in my fifth year here, and I just earned tenure) and as a comparative legal scholar. For a number of reasons, Saint Louis has always reminded me of another place where I have spent much time, namely Islamabad (Pakistan). And SLU’s governance structure, as well as its upheaval this weekend, has reminded me of General Pervez Musharraf’s regime—and its demise—in Pakistan.
At both SLU and Pakistan, I have seen democratically-inclined individuals view their situation as hopeless. At SLU, the word on the street (and in faculty meetings around the university) was that Biondi had long-since ‘captured’ the university’s Board of Trustees with his supporters and business partners; resistance was futile and professional and financial ruin would be visited upon anyone disagreeing with Biondi. Famously as well, Biondi had taken on the Pope—successfully—in 1997, in an intra-Catholic dispute over the sale of SLU’s hospital to the Tenet group of hospitals. In Pakistan, a common thought during the Musharraf regime was that Musharraf had deftly courted (and cornered) the United States, which was showering Pakistan with billions and billions of dollars in exchange for cooperating with the U.S.’s agenda in Afghanistan; again, the thought was that challenging the regime was futile and suicidal.
In both instances, however, an oppressive regime couldn’t figure out how to deal with a lawyer who said, simply, ‘No.’ On March 9, 2007, General Musharraf called the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, to a meeting in Rawalpindi (Islamabad’s twin-city, and location of the Pakistani Army’s HQ). Unhappy with the outcome of cases recently-decided by the Supreme Court, Musharraf demanded that Chief Justice Chaudhry resign at this meeting. Pakistan’s judiciary has vacillated between rambunctiousness and acquiescence vis-à-vis the Pakistani military over the 60+ years of Pakistan’s existence but, at this point in time, the judiciary was not in a particularly powerful position; Chaudhry himself was not known to be an interesting or charismatic person. Yet even he had finally had enough. He refused to resign—he said ‘No’ to Musharraf—and, in a remarkable chain of events, ultimately ended up leading a lawyer’s revolution against Musharraf, who eventually resigned in humiliation 1.5 years later and then left the country. (After recently returning from exile, to run for office in Pakistan’s upcoming national elections, Musharraf now finds himself in judicial custody and potentially facing treason charges.)
At SLU, we have had another lawyer—former dean of SLU Law, Annette Clark—to thank for finally saying ‘No.’ This August 8, 2012 ‘No’ was different than Chief Justice Chaudhry’s in Pakistan; Annette Clark’s 'No' took the form of resignation, rather than Chaudhry’s staying on (both forms of ‘No’ can be admirable). But, as in Pakistan, a lawyer’s ‘No’ sparked a democratic movement that had long been coming.
Many supporters and critics alike of SLU’s ‘No Confidence’ movement against Biondi have identified Biondi’s Fall 2012 proposals to revoke tenure at SLU as a ‘spark.’ While critics of the No Confidence movement have pointed to the attempt to revoke tenure as a ‘selfish spark’—i.e. that only out of selfish self-interest concerning their jobs did university faculty mobilize—supporters of the No Confidence movement have simply said that Biondi’s tenure plans were ‘a spark’ that lit a university tinderbox filled with years of stories of personal humiliation, ruined careers, financial mismanagement, and revenge, all committed by Biondi.
From my perspective at the law school at SLU, I can’t help but see the history of this SLU movement somewhat differently. Contrary to the ‘tenure-revocation narrative’ of this movement, I think one has to note its genesis in Annette Clark’s simple, principled, and humble refusal to go along with what many have identified as a culture of intimidation, fear, and silence at SLU. Her resignation letter did what no one before her had ever publicly done: it identified and called out Biondi’s attempt to humiliate those around him; it clearly described serious financial mismanagement at the university; and it asked (I’m paraphrasing): How can a religiously-identified university tolerate this immorality? It also declared (and here I’m quoting): “I no longer have confidence in [your ability] to lead this institution or in your commitment to the well-being of the School of Law.” And so, a No Confidence movement was born.
The recent experiences of both Pakistan and SLU present many interesting theoretical questions. For one, at both SLU and in Pakistan, democratic actors have rallied around non-affirmation: ‘No Confidence, No Fear’ has been the rallying call at SLU demonstrations and ‘Go Musharraf Go’ was the catch-phrase in Pakistan. In other words, a kind of abjectness—rather than strong and candidate/issue-oriented affirmative voting—has been the recent ‘shape’ of democracy in Pakistan and at SLU. (Queer theory has much to say about abjectness; in that light, my previous discussion of the queer group Against Equality can be seen as part and parcel of this kind of discussion.)
As well, one should note that in both SLU’s No Confidence movement, and in Pakistan’s anti-Musharraf movement, individual lawyers played key roles. (Here, again, is a difference between the SLU situation and the Pakistan situation: in Pakistan, lawyers around the country heeded and agitated on Chief Justice Chaudhry’s ‘No’; at SLU, the largest locus of lawyers on campus—the faculty of the School of Law—largely remained quiet vis-à-vis Annette Clark’s resignation and, also, the university’s recent threats of copyright litigation against professors in the College of Arts & Sciences.) This then raises many interesting issues pertaining to the relationship between law and democratic revolution. On the one hand, one might see here the pronounced rule-orientation of some revolutions. On the other hand, one might see in all this the chaotic quality of all law. As I have discussed elsewhere, different strands of ‘rule of law’ theory have different reads on all this.
The recent experiences of both Pakistan and SLU also present many institutional dilemmas—in the case of Pakistan and SLU alike, for example, there are many continuing worries that transparency and accountability are (still!) not values widely shared by most people in leadership positions. Moreover, there are still many outstanding issues which ring in a more human register. In such a register then, let me end this post, and my time here at the Faculty Lounge, by suggesting that Saint Louis University owes Annette Clark its deepest appreciation and gratitude. Through her public realization of the values of honesty, integrity, and solidarity, she did the seemingly impossible for SLU. Annette Zindabad!