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LSU interim President Tom Galligan, left, and Gov. John Bel Edwards, right, bump elbows after each spoke at a press conference along with Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, after one of several roundtable discussions with LSU officials and others, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020 in the LSU Foundation Training Room.

A day before an LSU search committee was set to take up whether to split up the top post at the university into two jobs--a president and a chancellor – Gov. John Bel Edwards on Wednesday said he prefers a single leader for the flagship university system.

And Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, who has expressed interest in taking over as head of the system, said he's no longer planning to apply because it appears the university will not hire two candidates and is staying with a combined president/chancellor. 

Dardenne, a Republican who crossed party lines to endorse Edwards in the 2015 election after losing in the primary, hadn't formally thrown his hat in the ring. 

In an interview, Dardenne said he was interested in becoming president of the system, a job he envisioned as having a "modest" staff and a focus on fundraising, external relations and coordinating the finances of the entire system.

Now that the board appears poised to keep the position as a combined president/chancellor, so Dardenne said he doesn't intend to apply. 

"My interest early on was based upon the belief that the board felt returning to two jobs was the way to go," Dardenne said. "I think that mindset has changed. I think the search committee is going to be charged with looking for somebody who is going to be president and CEO of the main campus. That is not what I contemplated what would happen." 

Edwards, speaking on his monthly call-in radio show, Ask the Governor, said it’s a “close call” on whether to split the president/chancellor position into two jobs, and that he won’t direct the board overseeing LSU one way or another.

But he said interim LSU President Tom Galligan has done “both of those roles well,” especially during the pandemic. And he noted it would cost more money to split the jobs again, which is untenable in a pandemic that has shrunk public institutions’ budgets.

Edwards in January said he supported splitting the jobs into two positions, but acknowledged Wednesday he has changed his mind.

“My opinion on it has changed over time,” Edwards said. “I think probably for the reasons i just stated, the two should probably continue to be merged into one person.”

Galligan said last week he “got the bug” and will apply for the permanent position after serving since Jan. 1 as interim. Galligan is dean of the LSU Paul M. Hebert Law Center.

Governors in Louisiana appoint the members to the LSU Board of Supervisors, which hires the president/chancellor. Edwards, a Democrat in his second term, has appointed enough supervisors, replacing appointees of former Gov. Bobby Jindal, to have control over the 16-member board.

LSU once had a president of the university system, which oversees colleges around the state, and a chancellor of the flagship Baton Rouge campus. The board merged them under then-Gov. Jindal about eight years ago, leading to the hiring of former university president-chancellor F. King Alexander.

Alexander announced last December that he was leaving LSU for the top post at Oregon State University, and LSU hasn’t made any decisions on hiring a new leader. A search committee tasked with finding a new leader will hold its first meeting Thursday – more than 10 months after Alexander said he was leaving.

The search committee was initially slated to deliver a recommendation for the organizational structure to the full board for an Oct. 23 vote. But that timeframe has been pushed back.

James Williams, head of the search committee, said he doesn’t expect the committee will come to a formal decision on the president and chancellor position tomorrow. He noted the Thursday meeting is the first time the search committee will meet, and it the organizational structure encompasses more than the president/chancellor position.

But Williams also said everyone involved wants the committee to complete its work “ASAP.” The search committee will also discuss the timeline on Thursday.

"I don’t mean a few years,” Williams said. “I think everyone involved in this process sees it as a process of months. What exactly that looks like the committee will decide tomorrow.”

The LSU board, when controlled by Jindal, hired a private consulting firm to study whether to consolidate the president and chancellor positions, and the firm recommended the board do so. After a secretive nationwide search, the board picked Alexander to do both jobs. Jindal supported consolidation because he said it would save millions of dollars in the administration and help the various schools within LSU work together.

Earlier this year, the board hired the same firm, AGB consulting, to do another study on the same topic for $71,000. This time, the firm offered up several options but no single recommendation on what to do.

In January, shortly after Galligan took over, Edwards told reporters he supports splitting up the top job into a chancellor to helm the main campus and a president to oversee the statewide system, which includes campuses in Alexandria, Shreveport and New Orleans, among others in the nine-institution system.

“But I will tell you that enough time has elapsed and Tom Galligan has been there and I've been able to watch him perform as president and chancellor in a very difficult COVID environment,” Edwards said on his radio show. “It seems like he’s been able to do both of those roles well.”

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com