Call me naive. I thought the long-simmering, destructive 2005-2006 controversy over renaming Willow Street as Martin Luther King Jr. Drive was thankfully behind us. Two months before the Lafayette City-Parish Council finally approved a resolution approving the name change, I wrote a cover story (“Where’s the Leadership?”, Oct. 11, 2006) blasting all parties involved for turning the noble and worthy goal of honoring our greatest Civil Rights leader into a pathetic circus of political pandering. Councilman Chris Williams, City-Parish President Joey Durel, Councilman Louis Benjamin, Councilman Bruce Conque, District Attorney Mike Harson, Lafayette Parish CIO Dee Stanley, the entire city council — they all deserved their share of the blame. And I was grateful and relieved when it appeared one of Acadiana’s sorriest chapters appeared destined for the history books.
More than a year later, the wounds have been opened anew, thanks to UL Lafayette President Dr. Ray Authement. In one of the most brazen, shameless and unexpected moves in the good ol’ boys’ playbook, Authement has hired Chris Williams to teach political science at UL. Painful as it is, let’s review the backstory of UL’s illustrious new professor, now that Authement’s ripped off the scab.
As he stoked the flames of the MLK Drive controversy, Williams hammered the council relentlessly, claiming Lafayette’s north side wasn’t getting its fair share of capital projects. “Don’t throw me a bone and tell me, ‘Be happy with what you have,’” he said. One problem: his premise was a lie. Public records showed that since Williams took office in 1996, his district received more funds than the other eight Lafayette districts. Confronted with the numbers, he waved them off as a shell game.
Williams also used racially charged phrases and innuendo to discredit his critics. “When a black person disagrees with Williams and Benjamin, they are labeled a ‘spook by the door’ or traitor sent by the white man to spy and cause disruption,” said African-American Planning Commissioner Fred Prejean. William’s most infamous moment came when he defaced public property and wrote “Martin Luther King Jr. Drive” on the council credenza. For that juvenile act, three misdemeanor charges were filed against Williams, and he was required to complete an anger-management class as part of his court plea. In perhaps his most egregious offense, Williams welcomed New Orleans minister and new ally Rev. Raymond Brown to his Oct. 6, 2006 press conference on the MLK Drive issue — a week after Brown publicly called former Gov. Kathleen Blanco “a no-good bitch.”
If you’re one of the thousands of parents paying tuition for your children to attend UL Lafayette, I regret to inform you that UL president Authement believes that Chris Williams is an appropriate role model to teach your children. Even worse, I regret to inform you that Authement bulldozed through Williams’ hire using the most appalling means possible. Dr. Bryan-Paul Frost is a tenured associate professor of political science at UL who’s worked at the university for 11 years, and to say that Frost is flabbergasted by Williams’ hire is an understatement.
“From what I understand, it’s a pure political patronage position,” says Frost. “I’ve been here through three professors retiring, and there has never been a need for an extra person or emergency appointment to come on board when someone is departing.”
UL’s political science department head Dr. Janet Frantz is retiring, and Dr. Pearson Cross is taking over for Frantz. Cross is also well known as a political analyst and commentator frequently quoted by multiple Louisiana media outlets, and defended Williams’ hire. “He brings an insider’s view of local government that is a valuable asset,” says Cross. “I’m not displeased Chris Williams is here.”
Why would Cross say anything different? Does anyone really expect an incoming media-savvy department head to disparage Authement’s judgment and say anything negatively that would affect his new position?
Frantz — widely respected by her UL colleagues and students — declined comment, and UL political science professor Dr. Sharon Ridgeway did not return a phone call for comment. “The fact that no one’s willing to speak on it is horrific,” says Frost. “None of us were happy about it. It wasn’t our choice, and we were disgusted that we were powerless to stop it and there was nothing we could do. But to not be able to speak about it at a public university that uses public funds?"
Frost also isn’t buying UL’s rationalization for hiring Williams. UL public relations director Julie Simon-Dronet told other media outlets that Williams’ hire was an emergency appointment, and said a national search was on for Frantz’ replacement. That was news to Frost.
“There is no national search for any position whatsoever,” he says. “I’m the chair of that committee [to replace Frantz], and I have no idea what they’re talking about.”
So why on earth would Authement hire Williams, knowing full well that the appointment would damage UL’s reputation and create a smoking, boulder-sized crater in his own already tarnished legacy? It’s because — and I don’t write the following words lightly — Authement doesn’t give a rat’s ass what the public thinks anymore. Williams’ hire shows that priority No. 1 for Authement in the final months of his tenure is to reward his allies and friends who follow him lockstep and don’t dare question his decisions. Let’s not forget that local attorney Jimmy Davidson — who owns the Girard Park land Authement so desperately wants for future UL expansion — contributed to Williams’ campaign fund in his failed bid for District 44 state representative. Unsurprisingly, Williams led the successful last-minute approval for Davidson’s property to be reclassified from residential to commercial (paving the way for a deal with UL) despite the fact that Davidson refused to produce any concrete plans for his land’s redevelopment to the city council.
Sheer coincidence, I’m sure.
At a time when Louisiana’s new governor Bobby Jindal was elected largely on his pledge to institute ethics reform and do away with the vestiges of corruption, Authement is living in the past — and in an ivory tower, to boot. If he keeps up this pattern of behavior before incoming T-Joe Savoie takes over as UL president this summer, Authement will continue to embarrass Acadiana and the university and leave his successor to clean up the mess.
Sounds like great fodder for a political science class in Louisiana. Does anyone know a reputable professor who could put the whole sordid state of affairs in context for UL students?