Another LSU Professor Opens Mouth, Hurts School’s Cause

Readers of my writing on politics, and prior to that sports, will know I’m a big fan of all things LSU. I’m a graduate of LSU. And I believe that LSU is the best thing the state of Louisiana’s public sector has going.

I don’t want to see LSU’s budget cut. Our state is in the middle of a fiscal meltdown brought about by decades of poor discipline on the part of governors and legislators, Democrats and Republicans alike, and little of the sloppy spending has gone toward LSU. If our politicians would properly prioritize the state’s flagship university as a place to train our best and brightest as leaders to develop our workforce economy for the future, I think it would represent the best possible public-sector investment of our tax dollars we could make.

But no public-sector investment is as wise as allowing people to keep what they earn. Our productive classes in Louisiana have borne too large a burden for decades, and as a result Louisiana has created for itself a reputation as a bad place to do business. Worse, we’re next door to Texas, which has an opposite reputation and consequently dominates the job-creation statistics nationally. Texas has no income tax. We have one. And for professional people wanting to raise a family, we impose an even larger tax; in too many of our parishes the public schools are so unsuitable that most parents opt to pay $7000 or more per child per year for private schools.

Changing that uncompetitive structure is the only way to fundamentally improve our state’s fiscal situation. Until it changes, though, it’s going to take leadership to prioritize where best to spend our meager resources.

At present, because there has been no consensus or even true dialogue about how to set those priorities, the governor and the legislature have opted to spread the pain of budget deficits around to as many areas of government as possible. And because the state’s constitution protects the majority of its spending, and because our political leaders don’t have the courage and vision to recognize there are institutions in state government which are inefficient and wasteful and need to be eliminated, we will be needlessly cutting in places – like LSU – which we should not be cutting.

So it’s not an attack on LSU when I say that English professor J. Gerald Kennedy’s letter to the Baton Rouge Advocate today is counterproductive in the extreme.

Kennedy opens his missive with a fairly predictable theme:

How sweet it is to be back in Tiger Stadium, watching a nationally competitive football team. But few Tiger fans seem to grasp the fact that unless our governor and Legislature take immediate action, LSU will by next season cease to be a nationally competitive university.

Budget cuts expected next year (33 percent-38 percent) will reduce LSU to ruins. Even half that amount would be catastrophic, because LSU has already suffered massive cuts since 2008. If you think Tiger athletics are immune to this disaster, think again. By next year, many majors preferred by athletes will be gone; with uncollected trash, unmowed lawns and vacant buildings on campus, recruiting will become impossible, especially when prospects can go to states where people value higher education. So enjoy this season, Tiger fans.

As a professor of English who has written six books on Edgar Allen Poe and is also recognized as an expert on Ernest Hemingway, Kennedy can perhaps be excused for his penchant for the dramatic. While it’s true that LSU’s budget has been shrinking since 2008, that budget ballooned in the previous 10 years just like the rest of state government did. “Reduce LSU to ruins” is the kind of catastrophe-syndrome rhetoric which simply won’t benefit the university’s cause. “Alter LSU’s ability to fulfill a flagship mission” would be a far better formulation. And the I-know-you-uneducated-Louisiana-rubes-don’t-care-about-education-so-I’m-going-to-hook-you-in-with-the-LSU-football-thing intro is so tired, arrogant and cliched that it’s guaranteed to turn off a sizable portion of the letter’s readers.

But wait – the prof’s just getting revved up.

If you think this is a wild, doomsday scenario, educate yourself. Go to the LSU website and check the departments, centers and services targeted for elimination in the FY2012 budget. The recently projected Level Three cuts will close HALF of LSU’s colleges and schools; nearly a third of the faculty will be fired. Deans will depart, star faculty will flee, prestigious programs will disappear, entire fields of study will vanish. When national perception catches up to local reality, the university will plummet in the rankings. LSU is being reduced from a flagship to a rowboat by a governor who cares only about becoming president.

The information on LSU’s proposed cuts can be found here. Without launching into a long, detailed analysis of them it seems quite obvious that most of the line items in the “Level One” and “Level Two” cuts probably should have been done years ago. Does the University really need a Campus Mail office with more than 11 employees, for example, in the age of e-mail? And does LSU need to spend almost $300,000 per year in costs for trademark licensing (which is supposed to be a moneymaker for the university anyway) when a $279,000 cut would:

Reduces state funding. Trademark Licensing will be forced to permanently end participation in workers’ rights and other consortia to guarantee quality of licensed goods.

University resources don’t need to be spent on “workers’ rights” for workers LSU doesn’t employ. If that’s the best defense for that budget item, it’s a dead giveaway that LSU still has fat to cut.

Back to Kennedy, who takes a swing at some solutions – and misses badly.

We desperately need a special legislative session to accomplish two things that might avert total disaster: 1) recoup lost revenue by reinstating the Stelly plan ratified by voters only to be abolished by an imprudent Legislature and 2) eliminate the TOPS program that drains state resources and pays to educate thousands of students whose parents can afford in-state tuition. We must instead channel these funds directly to the universities, allowing them to apportion financial aid. Wonderful as it once seemed, the TOPS program undermines the principles of an academic free market.

First of all, the voters ratified Stelly – and when they got a snootful of how it actually worked, those who remained in Louisiana and didn’t join the hordes of taxpayers exiting the state for less-expensive pastures revolted and demanded it go away. A brand new class of state legislators went into office in 2007 with a mandate from voters to shrink taxes and government spending; what Kennedy calls “imprudent” was politicians, for once, responding to the will of the voters.

And for Kennedy to call the voters “imprudent,” by extension, is for him to essentially say that LSU has a higher claim on our income than we do. In the middle of a recession, this is an opinion which will greatly offend most Louisianians. It is arrogant and stupid, and it is horribly counterproductive for him to be stating such an opinion publicly. And considering that Kennedy’s salary is a matter of public record, and can be found on the internet, it’s a really bad idea to argue that ordinary folks should see their taxes go up to support LSU. Sooner or later, somebody is going to point out that you made $127,000 last year and they’re going to lose sympathy for your position.

Now, Kennedy is a respected professor and an expert in his field. He’s been at LSU since 1975, and to my understanding he’s worth every penny of that salary. But when you’re essentially pleading for the resource base of your university, calling for the peons to cough up a few shillings more to their lord and master to keep him at table is evidence of a considerable tin ear.

As for the TOPS program and the demand to directly fund the universities with those dollars, he’s again off the mark. TOPS is going to need reform, certainly; it’s too easy to qualify for. But if there is support to eliminate it and directly fund universities so they can issue financial aid to students, I’ve yet to see any. It’s a waste of space to argue for that. What Kennedy should have suggested is giving LSU the freedom to charge whatever tuition it needs to in order to meet its expenses; tuition at LSU isn’t the business of the state legislature anyway and ought to be dictated by the marketplace. And at about $4500 a year last year, LSU is badly, badly underpriced based on the demand for a degree from the Ole War Skule among the state’s college students.

He goes on:

Don’t look for this special session to happen. Not in Louisiana, where government seems predicated on taking care of the most fortunate. Not with a governor who needs to keep his affluent backers happy.

Government seems predicated on taking care of the most fortunate? Really? How much of Louisiana’s state budget is spent on rich people? Seems to me we sure spend a lot of money taking care of the poor. Maybe they’re more fortunate than the rest of us. As for Gov. Jindal keeping his affluent backers happy, if that’s the case he’s not particularly good at it since there are lots of “affluent backers” with beefs against the governor right now.

And how smart is it to trash Jindal, anyway? Jindal has a 70 percent approval rating right now. Jindal also didn’t create this budget shortfall – whatever Kennedy thinks of the Stelly repeal, the state’s fiscal situation was a long time coming and it’s a direct reflection of both a soft national economy and an acute problem arising from the drilling moratorium. You can blame these cuts on Jindal if you want, but nobody really thinks he’s doing all this because he wants to. Why alienate folks who would otherwise agree with what you’re saying?

Kennedy finally brings his epistle to a close:

When I came to LSU 37 years ago, it was a sleepy, regional school with only a few eminent professors. Over the decades it has become a lively, nationally prominent university, brimming with academic talent. Hundreds of people worked to make this happen. I’m glad to have witnessed and participated in the transformation but demoralized, like my colleagues, by the crass political self-interest that dooms all of Louisiana higher education. So enjoy this season. Here we go, Tigers, here we go.

One could argue a professor demanding higher taxes to stave off budget cuts at the university which employs him is guilty of “crass political self-interest” in his own right. And that last bit just reeks of academic arrogance – looking down his nose at the dummies who only care about LSU football.

There are lots of suggestions which could be made. The first one is to eliminate Southern University’s New Orleans campus. The American Enterprise Institute’s recent study of six-year college graduation rates found out that SUNO, which has a $35 million budget and 2,100 students, had the worst six-year grad rate in the country at eight percent. Eight percent! I’m told you can’t graduate from SUNO without cross-registering at the University of New Orleans, which is practically next door, and what happens quite often is that SUNO students who can pass classes at UNO generally transfer to UNO – because it’s a better degree to have. The eight percent reflects the rest, many of whom clearly aren’t college material and probably would be far better served at a community college like Delgado, just a couple of miles away.

But since SUNO is an historically black campus, I’m sure it’s difficult for Professor Kennedy to make the argument that the state’s resources would be better spent shutting it down and redirecting those funds to shoring up LSU’s deficit. He won’t make that argument, so I will. There is no point is SUNO’s continued existence.

There are other candidates for a diminished role. Colleges which don’t graduate their students largely contribute in wasting those students’ tuition dollars. And when that tuition is subsidized by state government, they’re wasting our tax dollars not graduating students as well. Consider that when you see the roster of Louisiana’s six-year graduation rates…

The first column of numbers is the six-year graduation rate, the second is yearly tuition and the third is enrollment.

You’ll see 11 Louisiana public colleges with tuition rates under $4,000, and not one of them graduates half their students in six years. ULL has the best figure at 41 percent. LSU (with $4,500 tuition and a 60 percent graduation rate) and Louisiana Tech (actually more expensive at $4,600 but a worse grad rate at 47 percent) do significantly better. Those rates are absolutely pathetic. If you’re only graduating a quarter of your students in six years, your performance is an embarrassment to higher education in the state.

This represents a colossal waste of money, one which we can no longer afford. It’s time to start reducing the role of a university which fails to produce graduates in most cases, and we have nearly a dozen schools draining resources from the flagship university. Now that the state is in a budget crisis, it’s time to start making hard, structural decisions about what kind of higher ed system Louisiana needs and can afford. A bad four-year school within 45 minutes of every household in the state simply won’t get the job done. Those bad four-year schools are going to start having to become good community colleges.

At some point, LSU’s outspoken faculty are going to have to start realizing that if their battle is against the taxpayers, the battle is lost. Their battle has to be with the other schools who waste our taxpayer dollars and, rather than fulfilling their mission as educators, function as little more than local jobs programs on the backs of our taxpayers and kids, many of whose meager resources are far better used on vocational education than a couple of years of college.

If LSU wants to create better higher education in Louisiana it’s time to stop insulting the dummies at the football games and start fighting for its role as a flagship university. Kennedy’s op-ed in the Advocate does nothing in pursuit of that goal.

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