As Louisiana’s colleges limp along after losing nearly half-a-billion dollars in state funding over the past four years, Southern University may emerge as the model for how universities restructure themselves going forward, higher education leaders said Wednesday.
Representatives from the state’s four public college systems appeared in front of the Louisiana Board of Regents for the annual meeting where they discuss how they previously spent money and present their new spending plans to the state’s top higher education board.
Regents Finance Chairman Bubba Rasberry, of Shreveport, said Southern’s performance over the past year has been “shockingly good,” as the university spent about eight months slimming down after declaring a financial emergency called exigency in October.
Southern System President Ronald Mason said the goal is for the university to transform itself into a new kind of institution by focusing on the most popular degree programs and attracting larger numbers of students through online education offerings.
But besides the elimination of duplicative services and the consolidating of programs, Southern’s restructuring came with a fair amount of pain, Mason said. More than 150 positions were eliminated — including 69 tenured faculty — through terminations, retirements and attrition.
Mason said the challenge going forward will be to make sure Southern has the appropriate faculty in place to offer the right mix of programs.
At LSU, System President and Baton Rouge Chancellor William Jenkins said the $426 million in state funding stripped from public colleges since 2008 means “higher education will never be the same again.”
Budget cuts over the years have put LSU in the select class of universities in the region that haven’t given faculty raises or bonuses in several years, he said. That distinction makes it easier for other schools to lure faculty, and therefore millions of dollars in grants, to other universities, Jenkins said.
Additionally, LSU has had to reduce the number of faculty and staff by about 8 percent, or 340 people, in the past several years, Jenkins said. That has led to a 23:1 faculty-to-student ratio, which is the highest in LSU’s peer group and hurts national rankings.
LSU recently fell six spots to land at 134 on U.S. News & World Report’s prominent “Best Colleges 2013” list.
LSU’s strong enrollment numbers and money transfers from the Athletic Department have kept LSU from falling on much harder times, Jenkins said. Within the University of Louisiana System, which includes Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, more than 1,800 full-time positions in four years have been eliminated.
UL System Vice President for Business and Finance Robbie Robinson said an incentivized retirement program and very modest enrollment declines among the system’s nine colleges have lessened some of the pain.
Less state money has the Louisiana Community and Technical College System pursuing a merger strategy, with plans on the table to combine Capital Area Technical College with Baton Rouge Community College.
LCTCS Executive Vice President Neil Matkin said the system is also closing programs “where appropriate” and moving some faculty from 12-month to nine-month contracts.
After a full day of budget talk, State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell said he was “comfortable” with the paths Louisiana’s colleges are pursuing.
“All the institutions seemed to understand what the issues are,” Purcell said. “I was very pleased.”
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