Lawmakers should give a thumbs down to walling off Grambling State University from surrounding Grambling.
Last week, Democrat Grambling Mayor Ed Jones issued a public complaint about the university’s plans to spend $18 million on a security barrier that would envelop the campus. Last month, the University of Louisiana System formally added the proposal to the five-year capital outlay request for the school, staring next fiscal year. Legislators then would have to approve.
The item, fronted by Democrat former state Rep. Rick Gallot who now presides over GSU, comes as the institution’s response to several shootings on campus over the past few years. Most notably, two occurred in the space of days last October, resulting in a death and several injuries. While one of these occurred in the course of but not at Homecoming festivities, in the quadrangle area, and the other outside a heavily-trafficked building although both after midnight, the principals involved weren’t students nor from Grambling; one was a minor.
The latest incident particularly hit sensitively. Homecoming brings many parents and alumni to campus, and three-eighths of GSU students come from out-of-state – the largest proportion of any state school save my employer Louisiana State University in Shreveport which has a large number of distance learning students – where prospective students and their families in deciding about future enrollment more likely would be influenced by shocking headlines.
Such a request increases significantly the amount asked for by GSU, which has some other pressing capital outlay items. Under the fiscal year 2021-26 version of the plan, it asked for nearly $46 million total with over $13.5 million commencing this year for seven projects. It actually received from the Legislature almost $17 million because of various emergency needs over three requests. With this addition, the FY22-27 version now includes seven projects with over $95 million requested with more than $20 million petitioned for next year, not including any for the wall which would take more than a year to build.
GSU has had it share of violent crime since 2010. The campus that in 2020-21 had about 5,500 students attending has experienced over 100 violent crimes occur through 2020, a little more than larger Southern University and about three times that of the larger University of New Orleans. Southern University New Orleans, nearby to with less than half GSU’s enrollment, didn’t report any in this period or more recently although it doesn’t have residence halls. Significantly, all of these urban universities are located in far higher populated areas with their neighborhoods around them not being the most affluent, and, like all Louisiana institutions of higher learning, don’t have fences separating them from the community.
That comparison demonstrates that it’s not the absence of a barrier which affects crimes on campus, but other factors. GSU has a 14-mmember police department at its disposal and through the third quarter of 2020 crime had been on decline on campus over the previous three years, except for a noticeable upwards movement in arrests for weapons violations.
But perhaps more disturbingly, the barrier plan almost certainly would have to close off state highway 149/RWE Jones Street that runs through the heart of campus, which Jones points out would cause major traffic headaches and likely stunt commerce in the city of Grambling. Technically the state could restrict access at both ends because it’s a state highway, but it serves as a four-lane connector among Interstate 20, state highway 150/Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, and U.S. Highway 80 that also bisects Grambling.
And, Grambling more than any other Louisiana city hosting a public university would feel the impact of cordoning off a campus. Its population actually is smaller than GSU’s enrollment, and while small college cities such as Natchitoches, Thibodaux, and Hammond have larger institutions within their boundaries, all are significantly larger in population than each school’s number of attendees.
The hardship such a structure would inflict upon the community, as well as the experiences of other Louisiana universities potentially more vulnerable to violent crime yet which proportionally see much less of it, suggest the solution to suppressing violent crime at GSU lies with its administration that actively must manage policy in this area, not in its washing its hands of dealing with difficulties by bunkering behind walls and checkpoints. Money would be much better spent and much less of it with aggressive policing and other policy changes that discourage outsiders whose purposes on campus potentially could lead to violence from thinking they can roam it freely without scrutiny, and especially after dark.
Physically separating a university from the community sends the wrong message to all who wish to engage in or facilitate learning of some kind and makes a campus look more like a fortress that neither would reassure families nor promote an academic image. As such, legislators should reject this idea and signal to Gallot and ULS leadership they must manage things differently to address adequately this problem.