Mired in mediocrity, has Louisiana higher education already lost the battle?

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Imagine you designed a magic building that enabled a young person who stepped inside to emerge on the other end with special knowledge he or she did not have upon entering. Imagine that every young person who spent time in your building left armed, not only with knowledge but also with unlimited possibility and the almost-certain guarantee of earning 83 percent more than his or her peers…


A broken window in LSU's Dalrymple Hall, one of the many buildings on Louisiana college campuses that have fallen into disrepair in recent years. (Photo by Robert Mann)

Imagine you designed a magic building that enabled a young person who stepped inside to emerge on the other end with special knowledge he or she did not have upon entering. Imagine that every young person who spent time in your building left armed, not only with knowledge but also with unlimited possibility and the almost-certain guarantee of earning 83 percent more than his or her peers who had never stepped into that building.

Imagine a building that transformed ignorance into understanding, indifference into curiosity and hopelessness into potential.

One might also imagine that if you held the keys to such a building, you would be quite wealthy. Leaders from far-flung states and communities would descend on you, hoping to divine your secret. Eventually, people everywhere would demand such a magical edifice for their young people.

Of course, we have such places in almost every city of decent size. These are our colleges and universities, but they aren't truly magical. They're just extraordinary and priceless treasures that many Louisiana's leaders have demeaned and often ignored. They treat these treasures like a burden. They have sometimes vilified those who work there (unless the employee is a winning football coach, in which case he is worshiped as a god and paid like a king).

This past week, Louisiana launched its biannual budget-cutting saga in which LSU and the state's other universities are threatened with annihilation. Thus, I began my own biannual period of despondency over the state's indifference to higher education and its unwillingness to nurture these enchanted institutions that we treat like trash.

We've been doing this for too long. The state's coffers dry up. The size of the shortfall is staggering. Because almost everything is protected by statuary or constitutional dedications, the only places to cut deeply are higher education and health care. Thereupon, LSU and its sister institutions are seized as hostages, threatened with destruction until enough public outrage and fear prompt lawmakers and the governor to pony up the funds to keep the lights on and classes running.

Last week, I ginned up my anger at lawmakers and former Gov. Bobby Jindal, once again, for the damage they did to our colleges and all the ways they have deprived so many young people of a shot at education's brass ring. Hoping to blow off some steam, I took a walk around the LSU campus, poking my head into this and that building, observing at every turn decades of neglect and the toll that time, weather and wear have taken on so many buildings on that otherwise lovely campus. It's the same, or worse, on dreary college campuses across the state.

That is when I realized that walking is good for the mind as well as the body. As I marched back to my office, I began to wonder if my anger at our former governor was at least partly unfair. Some of these buildings were dumps before anyone ever heard of Jindal.

For example, I've been visiting LSU's Middleton Library since the late 1980s and had to admit its smell and grungy appearance has always repulsed me. Jindal's neglect didn't help matters and certainly made them worse at Middleton (especially the pitiful salaries for library faculty and staff and the decimated budget for book and database acquisitions).

I must acknowledge, too, that Louisiana higher education has been a neglected stepchild for generations. Even when governors like Mike Foster and Kathleen Blanco were "showering" our universities with funds, it was never enough to make them what they could or should be. At almost every turn, Louisiana's leaders and its residents were satisfied with good enough. Too often, excellence was not the goal unless we were talking about athletics.

The blame lies not only with politicians and the voters; many university leaders were also complicit. As their salaries and well-paid staffs grew, they often failed to tell their institutions' stories. They didn't explain their schools' worth to the state. They frittered away their schools' political capital or never used it. Many were cowards and refused to fight for their institutions for fear of losing their power or their large salaries. (Those few who did fight were fired, demoted or banished.)

Generations of higher education leaders assumed – like the makers of buggy whips in the late 19th century – that their product would always be appreciated, admired and highly in demand. Our colleges rarely felt the need to market their product to the public and weren't compelled to change their institutions' antiquated ways.

Fortunately, college leaders are feistier these days. For one thing, they finally have a governor who does not regard them as enemies. But is it all too late?

In 2016, after years of massive cuts and layoffs, if higher education leaders still struggle to persuade Louisiana legislators that our universities are worth the money required to keep the lights burning, haven't they already lost the battle?

Robert Mann, an author and former U.S. Senate and gubernatorial staffer, holds the Manship Chair in Journalism at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. Read more from him at his blog, Something Like the Truth. Follow him on Twitter @RTMannJr or email him at bob.mann@outlook.com.


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