Higher ed cuts forcing flight of top talent

Leaders from around the state say that Louisiana’s public higher education system is in a precarious position after four straight years of budget cuts.

Gov. Bobby Jindal and the state Legislature have cut more than $425 million from higher education budgets since 2008 as they maneuvered to balance state budgets.

Of particular concern is the rapidly changing landscape in higher education. Since April, two system presidents and three campus leaders have either retired, been dismissed or announced an upcoming retirement.

Experts say attrition at the lower levels is a bigger danger as department heads, deans and faculty are beginning to search outside Louisiana to states with more stable budget situations.

Higher education leaders also say colleges around the country are starting to look at Louisiana as fertile ground to pick off some of the state’s top talent.

When research faculty are recruited away or leave voluntarily, they often take millions of research grants with them. That hurts universities in national rankings and compounds the “knowledge drain” that typically accompanies year-after-year budget cuts.

Former LSU Chancellor Michael Martin said Louisiana’s dire budget outlook led other schools to target him in the months before August when he left the Baton Rouge campus to lead the Colorado State University System.

On Friday, Martin said he’s heard from several people at LSU who have asked him to be a reference as they look for new jobs.

“There’s always going to be people leaving, but what we’re seeing at LSU is people making lots of lateral moves,” Martin said. “The image of Louisiana among higher ed folks is of a state still struggling. It makes Louisiana vulnerable. I hope people choose to stay because LSU really is a fine institution.”

Since the beginning of the year, the voluntary departures at LSU include a Baton Rouge chancellor, the College of Science dean, the business school dean and, most recently, its Chief Financial Officer, Eric Monday, who was recruited away by the University of Kentucky last week after nearly two decades, two degrees and nine administrative positions at LSU.

Over the past several years, LSU has lost five faculty members in geology and geophysics to industry and other universities; two biological science faculty members to schools in Ohio and California; and one of their leading faculty members in computational chemistry who took with him a $20 million grant.

LSU System President and Baton Rouge Chancellor William Jenkins, on Thursday, said he could think of nine or 10 research faculty off the top of his head who have left recently and taken with them as much as $16 million in research grants. “People are watching us and coming after our best,” Jenkins said.

Terry McConathy, vice president for Academic Affairs at Louisiana Tech University acknowledges that turnover in higher education is fairly common. And while she wouldn’t yet characterize the significant numbers of faculty leaving for other states as a trend, McConathy said the departures could soon pose another problem.

“When you begin to lose your researchers, you run the risk of losing the students who follow them,” McConathy said. “A university needs a critical mass of faculty, students and research. You can’t separate any one of those components out.”

At Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, $38 million in budget cuts over the past four years has led to a dramatic reshaping as the university has gone from 10 academic deans to five, and 24 department heads to nine.

SLU President John Crain said the financial instability puts the university’s ability to earn accreditation at risk and is impacting academic quality.

“Even in those cases where we can afford to fill a position, it’s been increasingly difficult to recruit people to come here. Other times, we’ve had very few applicants apply for a position,” Crain said. “It’s very disheartening.”

Barry Erwin, head of the Council for A Better Louisiana, which lobbies on public policy, said Louisiana has a good example of how to protect higher education next door in Texas.

Texas state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas heads his state’s Committee on Higher Education. He said Texas has had its share of financial troubles, most recently in 2011 when the Legislature cut higher education funding by 9 percent to help fill a $20 billion hole in the budget.

But Branch said his state has taken other steps to preserve the quality of higher education. Texas has been able to pump $195 million into higher education over the last four years through its matching funds program, he said.

By setting aside $83 million for the program, the Texas Legislature made it easier for university presidents to “go out and sell donors on the idea” that the bigger the gift, the more likely to get it matched 100 percent by the state, he said.

“We needed to encourage private sector giving,” Branch said. “We attracted $112 million in private funding through that program.”

Texas also was able to cobble together $600 million over the years and dedicate it as an incentive to eight public colleges that legislators determined had the potential to join the country’s elite institutions.

Branch said schools that hit certain targets including graduation rates and the number of doctorate degrees awarded are eligible to grab some of those dollars.

“That was a good way for us to re-purpose an existing pool of money, Branch said.

While Texas and this state have different approaches to funding public universities, Louisiana State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell said he’s recently gotten encouraging signs from the Jindal administration that colleges could be spared mid-year budget cuts this time around.

Mid-year budget reductions to higher education have become the norm in recent years, when state sales tax collections fell short of what Jindal and the Legislature hoped for.

Being spared a mid-year cut should free universities to focus on creating efficiencies between now and next year’s budget including contracting with local industries to generate additional revenue, he said.

Schools can do a lot, Purcell added, to expand curricula to address worker shortages in different parts of the state.

“Every campus and every system is affected by uncertainty ... we’ll be working with the different boards next week on those kinds of ideas where we can increase efficiencies.”