LSU: not yet elite

LSU is not one of the nation’s elite institutions, nor is it on the cusp of reaching that status, members of the university’s Transition Advisory Team agreed Tuesday.

The group, led by consultant Christel Slaughter, is in charge of recommending how the LSU System’s separate institutions will be consolidated under the main campus in Baton Rouge.

The effort is called LSU2015. The goal is to turn Louisiana into a nationally recognized research institution able to attract and retain a share of the country’s and the world’s best talent.

Currently, LSU doesn’t crack the top 100 universities recognized in either the popular U.S. New and World Report Rankings, or the more highly regarded National Science Foundation, or NSF, rankings.

“The sobering reality, and it’s extremely clear, is that we are underfunded,” Slaughter said. “We are not in the big leagues.”

In recent years, LSU’s research funds have begun to dry up as faculty have left and taken their grant money with them.

In the academic community, research expenditures are generally looked on as one of the best ways to determine a university’s academic growth over time.

Money spent on research shows whether a university is growing academically. Academic growth on a university’s part translates to student achievement.

In 2011 LSU spent about $160 million in federal grant money on research. Transition Advisory Team member Jim Firnberg said the goal should be closer to $250 million to $350 million in research expenditures every year.

Firnberg, who leads the research and development subcommittee told the group that based on LSU’s location and the infrastructure already in place, the university has an opportunity to build its own research niche and compete nationally in six key areas.

They are: environmental science and coastal research; biomedical sciences; energy; arts and humanities; computation and digital media; and natural and renewable resources.

LSU System President and Baton Rouge Chancellor William Jenkins singled out coastal research as one particular area where LSU should focus on and compete for federal grant money.

“There are billions of dollars waiting in Washington on coastal research,” he said.

Firnberg, who previously worked as a consultant for the NSF, said LSU probably won’t make it into the top 50 research universities anytime, but could realistically join the top 75.

“This is not a negative,” he said. “We’re doing an awful lot with what we have.”

Team member William Sylvia Jr. said one of the keys to reaching that level is understanding exactly what other institutions did to reach that level and how they manage to stay there.

Slaughter, a partner at the Baton Rouge-based SSA Consultants, said one place to start is figuring out a way to offer incoming researchers higher starting salaries and holding onto current talent with pay raises.

The Transition Advisory Team is expected to submit a final report to LSU’s Board of Supervisors within the next 30 days.