No Good Answers For Louisiana Higher Ed Funding

When Bobby Jindal was a candidate for governor in Louisiana back in 2003, one of the key planks in his platform was the support of higher education, and, in particular, funding for LSU as the state’s flagship university.

Jindal lost to Kathleen Blanco that year, but he generated a lot of support within the LSU community, as there was a perception that Blanco lacked commitment to LSU as a flagship institution and was desirous of promoting the University of Louisiana system’s campus in Lafayette as a secondary flagship school. Those not-completely-baseless accusations dogged Blanco in her four years in office, and when she bowed out of a bid for re-election in 2007, leading Jindal to an easy electoral victory that year, the expectation was that LSU would get a chance once and for all to emerge as a well-funded flagship along the lines of a Chapel Hill, Austin, Ann Arbor or Berkeley.

That’s still a viable vision, and most in the state’s political class see its value. Unfortunately, Jindal isn’t achieving it. And at the moment it looks unlikely that he can do so anytime soon.

Higher education had a budget of $1.4 billion in 2008, according to an article in the Baton Rouge Advocate today. By the time Jindal’s budget whiz Angele Davis is through slashing the state’s slashable budget items to bring Louisiana’s nightmarish fiscal house in order, that number will likely come in under a billion dollars.

Given such draconian cuts – college budgets have already been cut by $250 million over the last 13 months, and $84 million in cuts were handed down last month as the state government tried to cope with a mid-year shortfall – individual campuses throughout the state are reeling from the damage. $39 million of that last figure is to be borne by LSU, and as a result the flagship campus is in the midst of handing down pink slips.

This, as the reader might imagine, is not going over well. A protest is being organized today on LSU’s campus by university professors, Jindal’s name is being savaged not just on campus but among many who support the university and the CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, Adam Knapp, issued forth some alarming statements at the Baton Rouge Press Club on the subject, as the Baton Rouge Business Report said yesterday:

The state’s bleak funding picture could prevent LSU from becoming a force for economic development comparable to major research universities in other states, Baton Rouge Area Chamber CEO Adam Knapp says. “The concept of a flagship research university is on the ropes,” says Knapp, who spoke today to the Baton Rouge Press Club. “This year it could potentially get knocked out.” State funding for higher education “has fallen off a cliff as of last year,” Knapp says, although federal stimulus money has helped prevent deeper cuts. He says if current trends continue, state funding for higher education in 2012 is projected to be less than it was a decade ago, when the colleges and universities served 33,000 fewer students.

The larger issue of two-thirds of Louisiana’s budget being covered either by federal mandates or constitutional protections means Jindal’s hands are tied to a large extent; he’s being savaged as “anti-LSU” and a fraud on higher education, but when you only have about $9-10 billion available to cut and higher education and health care represent the bulk of the spending in that block of your budget – and you have to find $3 billion in cuts – it’s impossible not to cut higher education. This is a structural problem in Louisiana’s budget which has been the case for decades; Jindal might be guilty of not attacking it at its root so far but he’s reduced right now to merely bailing water.

While the overall higher education budget is going to have to be cut, there are perhaps ways to keep moving LSU forward. Two of them are going to have to be addressed in this spring’s legislative session.

BRAC has suggested one sensible reform which should have been instituted long ago; namely, giving LSU and other institutions the power to set tuition and fees through their boards rather than having to play “Mother May I” in the legislature. Forty-eight other states run tuition through the higher education boards rather than the state legislature, and LSU’s funding always seems to fall short. BRAC estimates that the state’s flagship university is $113 million underfunded from what it needs in order to achieve the status the school is looking for among its peers. Some of the current shortfall can be covered through tuition increases; as unpalatable and unfortunate as those might be, LSU is still a bargain as a higher education choice and if tuition increases allow the university to price its services closer to what the market will bear for them it can expect to maintain its finances in a more stable manner. LSU system president John Lombardi has argued in favor of being able to govern his tuition and fees in consultation with his board since he got to LSU; it’s time the governor and the legislature started listening to him.

While detaching tuition from the politicians should be a relatively easy fix the legislature could put in place this year, the other necessary reform the state needs is more akin to the elephant in the room. The fact is, Louisiana has too many four-year campuses, too many college dropouts, too many duplicative programs and too many governing boards. But last fall when the state’s Commission on Streamlining Government, which did some good work in trying to seek out savings, was asked by state treasurer John Kennedy to take up the question of consolidating the state’s three higher ed boards, commission members ran screaming and Kennedy lost by an 8-1 vote.

Nobody wants to be the politician to step forward and declare that it’s time to merge Southern University’s New Orleans campus with the University of New Orleans, which is right next door – despite the apparent fact that it is impossible to get a degree from SUNO without taking classes at UNO. SUNO has a $40 million budget spread out over 2,899 students (which was its enrollment in spring of 2009); for reference LSU, serving a population of 27,992 students, has a 2009-10 budget of $438 million. SUNO spends about $13,800 per student per year; LSU $15,600. A 12 percent difference in funding between the state’s flagship campus and an auxiliary campus that isn’t even fully self-supporting ought to say volumes about how politics has skewed the state’s priorities.

This isn’t intended to pick on SUNO, though it’s the lowest-hanging fruit on the vine. There are some 14 public four-year campuses in Louisiana and the state is underdeserved with community and junior colleges to provide high school graduates with marketable job skills. This system grew up out of politics; the state senator from Thibodaux or Lake Charles or Alexandria or Grambling showing up to the legislature every year and fighting to expand the mission of the local school has created an unwieldy behemoth and it’s going to take politicians willing to dive on grenades in order to retool things into something more workable.

As such, Louisiana is not well-poised to turn LSU into the turbocharged research giant which can do for the state what UNC-Chapel Hill has done for North Carolina’s Research Triangle or what Cal-Berkeley did for Silicon Valley. Political reality dictates that only some of LSU’s cuts can be ameliorated, until a whole new paradigm of thinking on higher education and its role within state government and the budget process replaces the current failed model.

But if it’s any consolation, LSU is by no means alone in absorbing budgetary body blows. North Carolina, Michigan, Florida, California and most other states are in budget trouble just as severe if not more than Louisiana, and those states are slashing college budgets just as vigorously as Jindal is. If the concern is LSU’s standing relative to its competitors during the current period of budgetary malaise, perhaps the fact that things are tough all over can be of small comfort to Louisiana’s stymied flagship university.

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