Jenkins: LSU in precarious position

Advocate staff file photo by BILL FEIG -- The LSU Parade Ground is at the center of the LSU Baton Rouge campus, shown here in 2010.
Advocate staff file photo by BILL FEIG -- The LSU Parade Ground is at the center of the LSU Baton Rouge campus, shown here in 2010.

State budget cuts and the corresponding sinking opinions of peer institutions have put LSU in danger of falling out of the nation’s top tier universities recognized in the popular U.S. News & World Report rankings, System President William Jenkins said Tuesday.

LSU ranked as the 134th best school in the nation last year out of the roughly 200 schools regarded as tier one institutions.

“We’re at the tipping point of going from a tier one to a tier two,” Jenkins said during a meeting of LSU’s Transition Advisory Team. The 10-member group is in charge of coming up with recommendations for LSU’s current structural reorganization.

If LSU were to fall out of the top tier, it would deal a significant blow to a university that first reached that status — to much fanfare — just four years ago.

The magazine’s rankings take into account student selectivity; faculty resources; graduation and retention rates; alumni giving; financial resources; and how a school is viewed by its peer institutions.

The LSU System, like the state’s other public college systems, has absorbed massive funding cutbacks as state support for higher education has dropped by about $625 million since 2008.

“That we’re going through financially challenged times is not a secret,” Jenkins said. “The message there is that our peer institutions know we’re struggling, so it doesn’t bode well for what our standing is going to be.”

Jenkins supports reorganization of LSU in the face of budget cuts.

He added that LSU has also seen “a downward turn” in research productivity — a first in Jenkins’ long tenure with the university as a former system president, former chancellor, and now taking on both roles in an interim capacity.

“We’ve lost some pre-eminent researchers, and the number and the value of our grants have gone down,” Jenkins said.

Higher education leaders both inside and outside the LSU System have sounded the alarm in recent months on what it means for a university when research funds start to dry up.

One of the most tangible effects is a lower placement on the National Science Foundation’s rankings, which are widely regarded as “the gold standard,” in determining a university’s academic health.

Jenkins also mentioned that LSU’s faculty-student ratio has risen in recent years from 19:1 to 23:1 as faculty have left and taken their grant money with them.

“That has put us in a predicament,” Jenkins said. “The parameters aren’t in our favor. We’re already not very high in the rankings but we may take a turn for the worse either this year or next year.”

A portion of Tuesday’s meeting also focused on what steps LSU could take to be in consideration to join the prestigious Association of American Universities, or AAU.

The 60-member, invitation-only organization is made up of the top public and private research universities in the U.S. and Canada.

Since the founding of the Nobel Prizes in 1901, 35 percent of all winners and 70 percent of winners at U.S. universities have been affiliated with an AAU institution.

Former LSU Baton Rouge Chancellor Mike Martin last year said eventually being asked to join the AAU should be one of LSU’s top priorities.

Part of his vision was to see LSU’s Baton Rouge campuses — the flagship campus, the law center, the agricultural center and the Pennington Biomedical Research Center — consolidated under one umbrella. Without that, LSU will never truly enter “the big leagues,” Martin has said.

On Tuesday, consultant Christel Slaughter said part of the advisory team’s mission should be to figure out how far away LSU is to being seen in the same light as AAU universities.

“It is without a doubt the pinnacle, an exclusive group of top universities,” Slaughter said.

As members of the advisory team debated how long it would take, under favorable conditions, for LSU to reach the same prestige of AAU institutions, Jenkins cautioned that money is a major factor.

“We’re too underfunded to get into AAU company,” Jenkins said.