Expert counsels LSU on overhaul

LSU will have to create its own path as it undergoes a sweeping reorganization amid declining state aid and questions about jobs and personnel, a Baton Rouge consultant said Thursday.

The LSU Board of Supervisors previously voted to consolidate LSU’s separate institutions under the main campus in Baton Rouge. Concurrently, the board is looking for a chief executive to run the revamped university as part of the reorganization effort called LSU2015.

“There is no single best approach; there is no model to follow,” said Christel Slaughter, of SSA Consultants.

Slaughter met with LSU’s Transition Advisory Team for six hours Thursday working under the notion that LSU needs to adapt to an era of declining state budgets, while also serving a new breed of technology-savvy students.

Louisiana’s universities have weathered five straight years of state budget cuts to higher education that the state Board of Regents has tallied at more than $625 million. Schools have cut staff by more than 6 percent and raised tuition roughly $331 million to offset some of the missing revenue.

The advisory team’s primary responsibility is plotting out what the university will look like going forward. Slaughter called it an opportunity to put in place a structure that other universities would study 10 years from now.

LSU board Chairman Hank Danos said he envisions a strong research-based university that national and international companies would notice.

We want them “looking at LSU as a place to recruit, whether in the humanities or the sciences,” Danos said. “We have to earn a reputation that our students are well-prepared and ready to contribute.”

The advisory team spent much of its morning talking by phone with former University of Illinois President Stan Ikenberry, who is now a senior fellow at Penn State University and a nationally recognized higher education consultant.

Ikenberry said that as tuition continues to rise, parents and students are going to be more selective and universities run the danger of pricing themselves out of the market. LSU’s challenge, he said, will be to find ways to streamline operations, reduce administrative costs and “recycle” those savings into the academic side.

He added that the advisory team should decide on a basic structure before LSU’s board decides on a new president — a decision LSU leaders said likely will be made by June.

A new president can help clarify and refine the reorganization process, but LSU “doesn’t want to saddle a new president with the baggage of making those decisions,” Ikenberry said. “A president needs to understand the nature of the job.”

Other concerns, including adopting a common course numbering system making classes across LSU’s different campuses more transferable, should be put off until a second phase of the reorganization, Ikenberry said.

During Thursday’s broad discussions, the panel talked about different ways LSU could become more nimble including centralizing some of the back office functions related to personnel and human resources.

That discussion led to concerns that staff morale could suffer as people start to wonder if they will be relieved of their job duties or be laid off.

Slaughter said the challenge will be for the LSU administration to be open with employees about the process. She said natural attrition will relieve some of those pressures, while in other cases, administrators will have to “get creative” in assigning talented people new positions.

At the end of the day, interim LSU system President and Baton Rouge Chancellor William Jenkins said the meeting reaffirmed a lot of what he already knew to be true.

“There is no longer a question that we have to undertake this process. It’s not just us in this situation; it’s a national concern,” he said. “Perhaps we should have started earlier. We have to find every way possible to become more efficient.”

The Transition Advisory Team is expected to give the LSU board an update on its progress at a March 15 meeting.