Thursday, June 4, 2009
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
THE RISE AND FALL OF LSU
Huey Long was the best friend and supporter LSU ever had. He was called the father of the modern LSU by the Virginia Quarterly Review in commenting that “Huey stroked LSU as if he had been coddling a newborn pet elephant. During fiscal stringency in all other American states, Huey force-fed LSU with increasing appropriations.“ Huey Long force-fed LSU with increasing aproprationas. The Kingfish made no bones about his long term goals for the state’s flagship university. “LSU’s going to be the Harvard of the South.” But that was then. What happened in recent years that caused Louisiana State University to be an also ran, not just nationally, but right here in the Deep South?
LSU’s significant relevance as an educational pillar in the South continued into the 1950s. Prominent writers like Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren made the Baton Rouge campus a gathering point for major literary figures. The Southern Historical Association began publishing its Journal of Southern History as well as the long respected Southern Review, all from LSU. And the LSU Press became the publishing beacon for serious fiction and non-fiction rivaled only by the University of North Carolina Press.
Outstanding young academicians in a variety of fields were attracted to Baton Rouge, and the music department produced grand opera accompanied by its own symphony orchestra under directors of international acclaim. The efflorescence of so much creative and academic talent drew encomiums for Louisiana nationwide.
But then came the 60s and other southern states did not have the huge reservoirs of oil and gas. Education became a key to their survival. But in Louisiana, who cared about having a college degree when an oil field worker with a tenth grade education could make as much or more than many professionals with graduate degrees? A college degree became less relevant. And that’s when politics came into the mix.
With the economy running on auto pilot in Louisiana and unemployment running way behind other southern states, the cry for “keeping the flagship university strong” fell on deaf legislative ears. Rural legislators were more concerned about beefing local colleges up to LSU status, and even building unneeded new colleges and trade schools. And LSU became its own worst enemy by not aggressively making their case of why a flagship university was, and is today ,critical to the economic well being and future of the state.
The leadership of LSU made three key mistakes that allowed them to fall into the fiscal abyss the university finds itself in today. First, it did not aggressively defend and promote its status as the flagship. As THE leading focus for higher education. I was around the state capitol as an elected official in various capacities trough the 70s, 80s and 90s. LSU was just one of the many education interests lobbying the legislature and the Governor. They did not consider themselves in any unique category, and so were not given any special deference as the flagship. They simply did not make their case as key universities in other states did.
In North Carolina, there is one board for higher education. The centergy is around the flagship, my alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When the Louisiana’s constitutional convention was held in 1973, LSU was nowhere to be found, as it should have been, to lobby for a single college board. So now we have every college in the current four board system pushing to be a little LSU.
The second mistake made by the LSU leadership was the major failure to develop a solid endowment plan.LSU could well have the lowest endowment of any major college of its size in the country. As much as 15 percent of the total amounts spent by major universities to cover costs can often come from its endowment. Income is built up over a number of years by actively encouraging alumni to make regular contributions to a university fund. Successful college endowments grow through investments and are a significant income source for any major university in the country. Not so at LSU.
As you would expect, the nation’s top-rated universities also have the highest endowments. Harvard leads the country with an endowment approaching $26 billion. A number of state universities have endowments that are significantly above $1 billion. My alma mater, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has topped the $2.3 billion level gaining some 13 percent in one year on investments of new funds into the endowment.How about the Southeast Conference? The University of Florida comes in strongly at almost $1.2 billion. The University of Alabama has an endowment approaching $1 billion. The University of Tennessee system is now at $954 million. How about our backwards friends up in Arkansas to the north? $810 million endowment. The University of Kentucky- $957 million. Any number of smaller southern schools are above this level. So where’s LSU? Just topping $650 million, one of the lowest percentage increases in the country. LSU barely edged out Berry College in Georgia
US News and World Report recently released its annual university rankings. How did LSU do, not nationally, but just right here in the Southeast Conference? Vanderbilt was ranked 18, Florida was 49, Tulane was 58, Georgia-58, Alabama-83, Auburn-96, South Carolina-108, Tennessee tied at 108, Kentucky-116, Arkansas 125 (What! Arkansas?) And finally, dead last in the rankings of 130, LSU tied with Sanford. No, not Stanford in California, but Sanford, a small college in Birmingham.
James Carville dismissed many of the state’s problems by saying that Louisiana is not just a way of life; “It’s a culture all its own.” But every state has its own special ambiance, or way of life that is unique. Maybe they don’t throw mardi gras beads and use Tabasco sauce. Saying Louisiana is “special in its own way” is a cop out if its leadership has not made the commitment to accentuate its best and brightest.
Dr. Robert Berdahl, Chancellor of the University of California, raises concerns about the dangers to any state’s flagship university. “Once built, a state’s top university can easily be destroyed by political intrusion or financial neglect. But a strong, well financed flagship with solid leadership is vital to every state’s future.”
Louisiana is at a cross roads. If the state’s leadership does not work to protect and promote a high degree of excellent achievement at LSU, the best and the brightest students will leave the state or settle for a less challenging education offering them few opportunities in the future. And all of us will suffer from such a loss.
“Half the crowd in Tiger Stadium on a Saturday night can’t even spell LSU.”
Peace and Justice.
Jim Brown’s weekly column is syndicated in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the South. You can read his previous columns going back to 2002 at www.jimbrownla.com.