It's almost indisputable to note that most of Louisiana's state budget is protected by statute or the constitution. So when the budget must be cut, there are only two fat targets: health care and higher education. Even when the state isn't in the midst of one of its frequent budget crises, there are questions about how much Louisiana truly cares about higher ed.
The state's commitment, or lack thereof, is particularly relevant at LSU, the purported “flagship” school that is expected to compete nationally and even internationally. In 2007, Business Report introduced readers to Mohammed Noor, “a renowned evolutionary biologist and walking grant magnet,” whom LSU lost to Duke University, in part because Duke simply had more money to throw around.
LSU lost 45 tenured or tenure-track faculty during the 2006-2007 fiscal year for reasons that included being lured away by other schools, the story reports.
A certain amount of faculty swapping is inevitable in academia. But when a university is continually losing people who appear to be making lateral moves—as when LSU's business dean Eli Jones took the same job at Arkansas this spring, then on the way out the door told everyone he was leaving because budget cuts are shrinking the resources available for his college—that's a problem.
And when your two highest-profile (non-football division) LSU leaders—system President John Lombardi and flagship Chancellor Mike Martin—are fired (Lombardi) or bail voluntarily (Martin) within a month of each other, you have what appears to be a full-on crisis. Not the sort of environment likely to attract the best and the brightest.
Business Report Executive Editor JR Ball, who excoriates Louisiana's approach to higher education several times a year, recently took the state to task for committing less of its budget to higher education than Mississippi or Haiti, and noted the $451 million in budget cuts to higher education made since Gov. Bobby Jindal took office. But he believes the funding problems aren't the whole story.
“The entire structure of higher education in this state is fatally flawed,” he writes. “Our populist view of four-year universities is guaranteeing mediocrity—at best. Even worse, legislators don't view college campuses as places of learning, thinking and research; rather, they see them as job centers for their constituents.”
To be fair, LSU has made significant strides in student retention and graduation rates in recent years. The university and its allies raised nearly $800 million for capital improvements through the “Forever LSU” campaign, and they're looking for ways to boost its relatively puny endowment. And the flagship and its associated campuses say they're making progress in working with, and being more responsive to, the private sector.
William Jenkins, the interim head of both the system and the flagship campus, suggests LSU might at some point have to cut back on what it does, in order to get better at what it keeps doing.
“None of our institutions [in Louisiana], in time, are going to have the academic and intellectual horsepower to provide everything to every student,” Jenkins says.
At the moment, the biggest potential change on the horizon for LSU is the possibility of merging the positions of president and flagship chancellor, as a way of reorganizing the system under the flagship campus. Supporters say the move would boost LSU on national rankings.
But Kevin Cope, LSU faculty senate president, says almost any structure can work in theory. The real problem, he says, is the university's inability to resist outside influences (that is, politics), select a course of action, and stick to it. During the 15 years Cope has been at LSU, he says seven “five-year plans” have come and gone.
It's often said that the people of Louisiana seem more concerned about LSU's football team than the status of their flagship university. Unfortunately, there's not much Zach Mettenberger can do to help Louisianans compete in the global marketplace.
“To borrow an oft-borrowed quote,” Ball writes, “it's time for LSU to have a university its football team can be proud of.”
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