No one could have expected what Tom Galligan had to face as interim president of LSU, its system of institutions statewide and the main campus in Baton Rouge.
The state of Louisiana is in his debt.
Galligan withdrew Tuesday from consideration for the permanent job of president/chancellor, or president alone — if the Board of Supervisors changes the management structure of the top job — and the search goes on without him.
But the decision, driven in part by important family considerations, ought to prompt reflection on the challenges he faced in one of Louisiana’s most important institutions.
Galligan was not the only college president, nor far from the only American, to see lives and institutions upended by the coronavirus pandemic. Had he weathered that challenge by itself, it should prompt congratulations.
His successor will almost certainly be able to welcome students back in the fall in a more normal college experience.
LSU, like almost all universities, is heavily dependent on tuition and enrollment to fill its dormitories. The financial impact on the institution — and not just the athletic department, although that was also substantial — was no typical challenge on Galligan’s watch.
That students, faculty and staff can return almost to normal in the fall semester is a great thing but “normal” understates the changes to the nature of the institution, particularly the main campus.
Athletics, for example.
Galligan was called upon to deal with fallout from athletic department scandals for which he, and many of the board members, were not responsible. At LSU, that has produced a reckoning that has been long in the making but made crisis management almost a daily part of the president’s job. Galligan, though, can be faulted for the very modest penalties handed out to athletics administrators directly responsible.
The moral challenges of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and a subsequent debate on sensitive questions of race and class also roiled LSU’s predominantly White campus. That, again, was a reckoning a long time coming with which Tom Galligan had to deal in the midst of the other crises.
Alumni are still divided over the decision of Galligan and the board to remove from the library the name of a war-hero president, Gen. Troy H. Middleton, whose reputation was besmirched by his support of segregationist policies in the 1950s.
But Galligan did not deal with the passion of student demonstrations from behind his office door. He walked with the young people outraged by Floyd’s murder and LSU’s sometimes ugly past involving race.
In his withdrawal letter, Galligan spoke movingly of his love of teaching that he will return to at the law school. He would probably rather his tenure as president is remembered with a picture of himself in a lecture hall.
But we think the iconic picture should be the LSU president out with his students, pulling down facemask and bullhorn in hand, facing the institution’s challenges in a time of crisis.
Louisiana is grateful for this service, too.