Martin, Lombardi Statements Indicate Complex LSU Policy Stances

One effect of Louisiana’s challenging budget situation is an increase in the level of competition for scarce financial resources, and that competition is bringing out much of the rivalry between the various universities in Louisiana.

That said, statements of key officials at LSU indicate the state’s flagship university is doing some thinking about what kind of higher education system Louisiana should have. Whether the conclusions those officials are coming to are correct is debatable, but a vision can in fact be discerned from the emanations of LSU System President John Lombardi and Chancellor Michael Martin this week.

Start with Martin, who in an article in the LSU Reveille today makes the case that increased tuition is a smart direction for the state and the university to move in. Mostly, though, Martin says that higher tuition is actually in the best interest of LSU students.

“If it comes down to it, it is in the best interest of LSU to pay more either through tuition or fees,” Martin said. “I believe if you pay more now, it is going to cost you less in the long run.”

“If we have to take the kind of cuts we have to face, even at 10 percent, and we have to remove sections and options, you may be here another year to get your degree,” Martin said. “And another year cost you two ways: the cost of being here and the cost of not having a job.”

LSU’s tuition is exceedingly low in comparison to other flagship universities around the South; in the The American Enterprise Institute’s study of six-year graduation rates done last fall, LSU’s average tuition was pegged at $4,543 per year – which is actually slightly lower than the $4,622 charged by Louisiana Tech. Compare that figure to Ole Miss, which charges an average of $4,932, or Alabama ($5,700), Arkansas ($6,038), Georgia ($5,622), Kentucky ($7,096), South Carolina ($8,346) and Tennessee ($5,932). Only the University of Florida ($3,257) has cheaper tuition than LSU according to AEI’s survey – and that figure can be increased based on a 15 percent tuition hike at Sunshine State public universities announced in the summer.

In fact, according to the Reveille article, LSU tuition was rated lowest among its peer institutions by something called the  Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

As a result, Martin and LSU have been qualified fans of Gov. Jindal’s Louisiana GRAD Act, which allows for 10 percent tuition increases per year for the next six years as long as performance benchmarks are met. The Chancellor has in the past been quoted as favoring a move away from state general fund dollars making up the majority of LSU’s budget.

“I believe that over time, students have to pick up a bigger share,” said Martin, who is in the process of discussing a yearly flagship fee of $1,000 per student with various campus leaders. “We’ve got to move toward a circumstance under which our funding is more diverse than its current nature.”

Lombardi uses even more colorful language to describe the current tuition structure both at LSU and other universities around the state. He and Martin are of the same strong opinion that LSU should have the freedom to charge whatever tuition rates the market will bear, in order to protect the school from the topsy-turvy nature of state general fund appropriations.

Lombardi advocated that universities get full authority to increase tuition, arguing that LSU’s cost is too low. Louisiana is the only state that requires two-thirds legislative authority for tuition increases. Currently, colleges can increase tuition 10 percent by promising to meet performance goals like increased graduation rates.

Even though Louisiana has become more conservative, he said, it remains “populist” about tuition.

Colleges should have more free market ability to charge what they believe is right and let the market demands show which schools are most successful, he said.

Fiscal conservatives “ought to be mortified of the socialist structure you have for higher education,” Lombardi said.

To some extent, it was inevitable that university officials throughout the state would eventually rebel against the whipsaw of increases and cuts coming from the state budget. Lombardi and Martin, veterans of a successful drive to build the University of Florida into a nationally-prominent institution during the 1990’s, merely seem to be the most outspoken of the group.

And there is support for the concept of setting universities free from micromanagement from the state’s political class. The Flagship Coalition, a group of businesspeople with a history of financial support for LSU, has put forth a plan to remove what it calls “bureaucratic shackles” on things like purchasing and other operational rules which could save as much as $85 million over five years. LSU is generally supportive of the Flagship Coalition’s aims, though Lombardi seems less than excited about the legislative strategy of the group.

“It can work out well or it can be a total catastrophe,” he said.

“The only disadvantage of the Flagship Coalition is its extreme arrogance,” Lombardi said, by claiming to know what it best for LSU.

The Coalition also is pushing for legislation that would give LSU the ability to opt out of the state’s civil service system, purchasing rules and retirement plans. Such proposals are designed to help offset state budget cuts.

Lombardi said he supports many of the Flagship Coalition ideas. “So I think it’s a positive,” he said. “It gets people excited about issues that are important.”

Afterward, Jack Hamilton, provost on the LSU Baton Rouge campus, said the Coalition is seeking to help higher education statewide “to take advantage of these cost-saving measures.”

Qualms expressed by LSU officials about the Flagship Coalition include the fact it doesn’t have much input from academic people. LSU Faculty Senate President Kevin Cope, who admittedly doesn’t come from the same stance as Martin and Lombardi on all issues, sounds a bit hostile to its composition.

And then there’s the matter of how this movement came about. While the Flagship Coalition’s goals align with those of many faculty and administrators at Louisiana State, Cope says he’s concerned about the way the process has played out thus far.

“Already, some people have noticed there is no faculty input into the Flagship Coalition,” he says. “This is happening at the very top of the trees among people who are politically connected and wealthy.”

And because the coalition’s membership leans toward a business orientation, their ideas are often couched within the context of filling Louisiana’s workforce needs, rather than building a comprehensive university, Cope says.

“This is also an area where the Flagship Collation may need to get some vision or certainly will come into criticism,” he says. “You seldom find any support [in their proposals] for basic research or the core traditional disciplines in the humanities.”

Cope’s other criticism of the Flagship Coalition, one which Martin and Lombardi probably don’t share (at least in terms of the tone Cope takes), is that it also aims to do away with Civil Service protections for university employees.

There are also concerns about whether the protections of staff would be weakened if they were removed from the Civil Service System, which sets regulations regarding pay and hiring and firing employees.

“We don’t have any other protection for the staff services in the state,” Cope says. “Once civil service is gone, they are in a lawless environment.… They become, in the purest sense, at-will employees. I would submit that is cruel and unacceptable in the modern and presumably academic-inspired environment in which we work.”

Proponents of the Flagship Coalition plan haven’t been bashful about the fact that exempting the university from the Civil Service System would make it easier to remove staff. Indeed, the plan specifically states that the exemption would allow for “more efficient layoffs and reorganizations.”

On the whole, though, LSU does appear very much in step with the idea of being set free from the legislature. Lombardi is skeptical that it will happen even with the Flagship Coalition pushing for it, though.

“Whether the legislative and executive branches of state government will agree to relinquish the tight controls they now exercise over higher education in Louisiana remains to be seen,” Lombardi wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. “Traditionally, this has been a difficult challenge, but perhaps in the privatizing mode that is now more popular, some will see the contradiction that exists between centrally controlled government regulation of public higher education and the push to move government services into a competitive marketplace where the success of public institutions becomes a function of their ability to serve their constituencies.”

That skepticism is the likely source of LSU’s cool reaction to Jindal’s proposal to merge Southern University’s New Orleans campus with the University of New Orleans and move the resulting institution out of the LSU system and into the University of Louisiana system. The Governor justified the system change on the basis that the product of the merge would be tasked with partnering with Delgado Community College to deliver optimal outcomes (specifically, routing a large number of students through Delgado and having them progress to UNO after earning an Associates degree) and such a mission is better suited to the regional universities in the UL system. But while he said he won’t take an official stance on it, Lombardi isn’t crazy about any part of that plan.

A merger of UNO, which is part of the LSU System, and SUNO, which is part of the Southern System, has “surface validity” because of their proximity to each other, Lombardi said. But the two schools are “remarkably different in their missions and student populations” and may not mesh well, he said.

SUNO has “profound symbolic meaning” as a historically black university, Lombardi said, and that will greatly complicate matters.

“Surface validity” is an interesting quote, because Lombardi’s qualms about the UNO/SUNO merger, while not completely dishonest, are not likely the real reason for his concern. The Inside Higher Education piece linked above, in discussing the idea of giving LSU greater autonomy from the educational system as advocated by the Flagship Coalition, comes closer to the truth…

As Cope explains, Louisiana’s other systems – the University of Louisiana, the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, and the Southern University System for historically black colleges and universities – might have more power in the halls of the Legislature if Louisiana State were carved up in some way from a governance perspective.

“It would be a slightly dangerous thing if this were to issue in the breakup of the LSU system, unless the other ones were broken up” too, says Cope, a professor of English and comparative literature.

In other words, it isn’t so much a question of protecting LSU’s turf as it is fear of the legislature which drives the resistance to change such as that proposed by the governor. Lombardi’s concession of “surface validity,” if we are to be allowed to read his mind a little, is telling – he knows that SUNO’s $40 million budget and 6 percent graduation rate are unsustainable within the current environment, and the relationship between Lombardi and his UNO subordinates is anything but optimal, as evidenced by former UNO chancellor Tim Ryan’s forced resignation last fall. But while Lombardi wants the freedom to pursue LSU’s flagship agenda and its vision as a nationally-competitive major university, he perceives that getting what he wants in the way of being cut loose from the herd carries with it a lot of risk from politicians who don’t share, or even understand, his goals.

And so LSU’s leaders are crafting a nuanced, complex and often seemingly disjointed approach to higher education policy as they attempt to navigate through a challenging political climate. While few believe LSU will be without a chair when the music stops in thisupcoming legislative session, it’s clear that change is coming – and Lombardi and Martin appear to recognize it’s going to be difficult to achieve the change they want in shaping LSU’s role in Louisiana’s higher education.

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