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Thursday, October 21st, 2010

Baton Rouge, Louisiana


Across the nation, colleges and universities are facing a major financial crisis.  Federal stimulus funds are running out, and state legislatures are facing a deep decline in revenues.  Are flagship universities so important to economic growth that they should maintain their present funding at the expense of other programs?  Should taxes be raised to meet the projected deficits?  These are front burner questions for lawmakers nationwide, but particularly here in my home state of Louisiana.

Louisiana educators are floating a doomsday scenario for higher education because of  budgetary cuts by Governor Bobby Jindal.  LSU’s Chancellor Michael Marin said the anticipated cuts represent a “devastating blow that will not be recovered from in our lifetimes, and probably not in the lifetimes of our grandchildren.” LSU System President John Lombardi says:  “We are destroying capacity for higher education”¦for our citizens.”

But have universities like LSU made their case for what they are presently doing with the money that has been given to them up until now?  We live in a results oriented society.  But as is so often the case of government at all levels, once programs and agencies are created and funded at a certain level, they quickly become sacrosanct and absolved of accountability or show of performance.

If I were a legislator considering the budget for a university like LSU, here are some of the questions that I would ask:

[1] LSU has one of the lowest graduation rates of major colleges throughout the country, including southern schools in the Southeast Conference. Fewer than half the students graduate in six years.  Why are we funding students to “hang around” year after year?  Granted, the feeder system for high school is weak.  But six years?  What efforts are made to remediate in the first year, then weed out these students who are not capable of carrying the load?

[2] Endowments are critical for a university to excel, particularly in bad economic times.  Many colleges derive as much as 20% of their income from the school’s endowment fund. Better funded schools have in place an all out effort to keep their alumni involved with regular fund drives to increase the endowment. LSU has the lowest endowment of any major university in the country. Every Southeast Conference university, with exception of Ole Miss and Mississippi State has a significantly greater endowment than does LSU.  University of Arkansas is $700 million.  According to Chancellor Martin, LSU’s present endowment is $300 million. Why the failure to build a strong endowment and what is being done now to encourage more private giving?

[3] Is LSU overrun with administrators?  What is the percentage of faculty members to nonacademic jobs?  I’ve been told the ratio is seven to one with way too many non teaching jobs. Is LSU a teaching college, or has it become a multiversity festooned with extraneous functions?

[4] Does LSU make undergraduate teaching its first priority?  There are significantly more graduate students than undergraduates, so are the graduate students commanding most of the professor’s time and attention?  And who is teaching the freshman?  Ask any new student about the large lecture classes, with the discussion session often conducted by some fledgling graduate student.  Why are not full professors carrying a greater teaching load?

[5] Why sabbaticals?  99% of us don’t get a year off to refresh or write a book.  The mission should be to teach.  A three month summer vacation should be ample time to travel and write.  And what about all this “publish or perish” malarkey?  I have a publishing company and I am all for more books being published.  But, why, at the expense of the student and tax payer, should a professor be financially supported in the publication of a book, often on a light-weight theme, that few read, just to stay on tenure track?   Teaching should be the primary mission of a major university like LSU.  But is it?

[6] And what about tenure?  There is a major push to abolish it in the elementary education system.  Why is tenure so sacrosanct in our universities? Are we protecting professors who have lost the drive to teach and hide behind the mantra of research?  Are universities like LSU spending too much money on research and not enough on the focus of the classroom?

There was a time when universities saw their mission as education.  The present debate should be about much more than money.  The mission of universities like LSU needs to be specifically articulated.  Certainly academia should be well funded.  But universities should also be “smart funded,” with clear priorities and predictable results to show for the effort.  Right now, particularly in Louisiana, there are a number of unanswered questions that taxpayers need to have answered.


“The secret in education is in respecting the student.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Peace and Justice.

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the South.  You can read all is past columns and see continuing updates at www.jimbrownla.com. You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9 am till 11:00 am, central time, on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at http://www.jimbrownla.com. The show is televised at http://www.justin.tv/jimbrownusa.

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