Oregon State President Resigns Amid Criticism of Past Handling of Sexual Misconduct

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F. King Alexander, in December 2019, after being named president of Oregon State.
Image: Oregon State University

By Jack Stripling and Andy Thomason

Oregon State University’s Board of Trustees, under pressure to fire F. King Alexander as president for his handling of sexual-misconduct allegations in his previous position at Louisiana State University, on Tuesday accepted his resignation.

“Simply stated, Dr. Alexander no longer has the confidence of the OSU community,” Rani Borkar, chairwoman of Oregon State’s board, said at a meeting called to discuss Alexander’s offer to resign, which he made on Sunday.

By accepting the president’s offer, the trustees agreed to pay him $630,000 — the equivalent of one year’s salary, according to his contract — and $40,000 for relocation assistance. (Board members said the payout would not come from tuition or tax dollars. As part of the resignation agreement, both the board and Alexander agreed not to sue.)

The board appointed the university’s provost, Edward Feser, to serve as acting president.

Alexander’s resignation comes less than a week after a tense meeting that ended with the president being put on probation until June. That step did little to quiet calls to cut Alexander loose. Within days, the state’s Democratic governor said publicly that Alexander should be fired if trustees confirmed he had acted negligently at LSU, and Oregon State’s Faculty Senate voted no confidence in the president. Those pressures proved too intense a storm for Alexander, less than a year into the job, to weather.

The challenge to Alexander’s position came on suddenly. Early this month, a new investigative report at LSU found, among other things, that the president knew of allegations of sexual misconduct against Les Miles, then the high-powered football coach, but decided not to act even as the athletic director recommended that Miles be fired. (Miles has denied he acted inappropriately.) Alexander did fire Miles three years later after the coach began the football season with a disappointing 2-2 record.

Alexander defended himself at last week’s board meeting by saying LSU’s board members had made the decision not to fire Miles before Alexander even arrived on campus, and that making a unilateral decision to terminate the coach would have very likely cost him his job. Alexander also painted a harsh portrait of his former employer as a financially starved and dysfunctional campus with a football-obsessed board.

Accepting Alexander’s resignation, several board members were visibly emotional on Tuesday, taking stock of an unforced error that caused unexpected reputational harm and cross-campus trauma. The crisis spurred an outpouring of public testimony from survivors of sexual assault, who volunteered their painful experiences in statements to the board, adding urgency to the calls for Alexander’s dismissal.

Lamar Hurd, a trustee and former Beavers basketball player, fought back tears in a halting statement of regret, apologizing for how the controversy had inflicted pain. He offered the assurance that, despite a national culture of cover-ups in athletics, Oregon State was different.

“Somebody can dunk a basketball, or score a touchdown, or hit a home run, or they have power within a certain situation, or they get paid the most money — a lot of times things are kind of swept under the rug,” Hurd said. “And I just want to make sure you guys know that we don’t do that here.”

Alexander’s resignation brings to a screeching halt what has been until now a steadily ascendant administrative career. At 57 years old, Alexander has been a public-university president for 20 years across four different institutions. His first presidency was at Murray State University, in Kentucky, where he succeeded his father, Kern Alexander. After that, he led California State at Long Beach, before taking the helm at LSU, and finally serving for less than a year at Oregon State.

With his future in higher-education leadership in doubt, Alexander offered only a brief statement after the Oregon State board accepted his resignation.

“I’m sorry to any of the survivors of sexual assault and misconduct that this has brought back any pain,” he said. “I offer my resignation to Oregon State University to allow us to move on. Students have and always will be my top priority.”

Alexander declined an interview request on Tuesday.

Feuding with LSU

 

Alexander’s resignation brings to a close an unusually contentious leadership crisis that hinged on a president’s past shortcomings. Over the course of an increasingly tense string of days, during which Alexander saw his support at Oregon State rapidly erode, the president defended himself in part by suggesting that, during his years at LSU, he had been battling a dysfunctional governance culture in which the board controlled key athletics decisions.

Alexander’s allegations about his former employer inspired blowback from LSU. Robert S. Dampf, chairman of LSU’s Board of Supervisors, on Monday, wrote a letter to Borkar, his Oregon State counterpart, blasting Alexander for his “arrogant and condescending comments about Louisiana’s culture, our state, and our university.”

The cross-country feud, coupled with the damning recent revelations about LSU’s handling of sexual misconduct, come at an inopportune time for LSU, which is in the midst of its own presidential search.

Alexander’s allegations about board micromanagement could suggest that LSU has violated compliance standards with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the university’s accrediting agency. The agency will investigate the matter, The Chronicle reported on Thursday.

Robert T. Mann Jr., a longtime mass-communication professor at LSU, who has worked in state and national politics, says that Alexander’s ouster at Oregon State could help to advance a false narrative that Alexander was solely to blame for Louisiana State’s deeply rooted, ongoing problems with sexual misconduct.

“They can say, ‘Oregon State fired him; he was a really bad guy,’” Mann says. “‘We got rid of him. He was the problem.’”

With his downfall complete, at least for now, Alexander joins a list of college presidents whose reputations were severely marred by the wicked nexus of sexual misconduct and big-time college sports. No two cases are alike, but the controversy that has swirled around Alexander calls to mind scandals that undid the careers of Graham B. Spanier and Lou Anna K. Simon, who led Pennsylvania State University and Michigan State University, respectively.

“When you lead an institution, anything that happens on your watch is going to be a reflection of you and your leadership, fairly or unfairly,” says Eddie R. Cole, an associate professor of higher education and organizational change at the University of California at Los Angeles. “A lot of other university presidents are looking at this Oregon State situation, making personal notes and taking stock of their own campuses.”

Update (March 23, 2021, 3:46 p.m.): This article has been updated with new information and context from Tuesday's board meeting.

Jack Stripling is a senior writer at The Chronicle, where he covers college leadership, particularly presidents and governing boards. Follow him on Twitter @jackstripling, or email him at jack.stripling@chronicle.com. Andy Thomason is an assistant managing editor at The Chronicle. Email him at andy.thomason@chronicle.com, or follow him on Twitter at @arthomason.

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