Higher education apathy condemned

Three of the state’s most high-profile academic voices offered biting criticism Friday, denouncing an attitude of indifference toward higher education they see from Louisiana’s citizens, business leaders and lawmakers.

Much of the hand-wringing in Louisiana’s higher education community these days stems from the $700 million Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature have stripped from the state’s colleges and universities since 2008.

The budget cuts are at the root of what faculty describe as a wide array of dismal conditions on college campuses, from crumbling infrastructure and low employee morale, to program cutbacks, staff turnover and ballooning student-faculty ratios.

University of Louisiana at Monroe political scientist Joshua Stockley was one of the panelists speaking during Friday’s Conference of Louisiana Colleges & Universities.

Stockley’s research shows that more than 3,000 higher education jobs have been lost over the last five years within the network of campuses that make up the LSU and University of Louisiana systems.

“If a Fortune 500 company said they were laying off 3,000 jobs, I’m sure the governor and Stephen Moret and regional legislators would come together and find a way to come up with the money to save jobs,” Stockley said, referring to the governor’s economic development chief.

Stockley said the cuts to higher education can’t all be blamed on the national economic downturn, either.

He said the governor and the Legislature have made strategic decisions, including repealing a 2002 tax measure and offering lucrative tax credits to movie companies and other big businesses, that have directly led to a lack of state funding for higher education.

“What we are saying is that movie jobs are more valuable than our colleges,” Stockley said.

Jindal downplayed the criticism of his administration in a prepared statement Friday noting that he is planning to increase funding for higher education in his most recent budget proposal.

“We’re proud that our budget increases funding for higher education by $141.5 million, and we will continue to invest more money in higher education,” the statement said.

Nearly $88 million of that new funding will come from students in the form of tuition increases, meaning the governor is proposing about $54 million in new state funding.

Pearson Cross, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette political scientist, said part of the problem is that the higher education community has lost the narrative, in other words, failed to demonstrate its value to decision makers and the general public.

He took exception to the governor’s focus on using higher education as a tool for workforce development, primarily in very specialized fields.

“We are the people who lead and design projects, not just work in them,” Cross said. “We help people become better and more informed citizens, we promote critical thinking (and) we help people live happier and more fulfilling lives.”

“Serving as a training ground of the economic development pipeline is only one part of what we do,” Cross added.

LSU political scientist Kirby Goidel took exception to a constant narrative that state government, including higher education institutions, should run more like a business.

Goidel described statements like that as disingenuous considering the Legislature’s vise-like grip on tuition. Louisiana is the only state in the country that requires approval from two-thirds of the Legislature to adjust tuition rates.

It’s a sore subject among the higher education community, many of whom have participated on study commissions and who have testified in front of the Legislature, without success.

“We have no freedom or autonomy to make personnel decisions, negotiate contracts or decide who we’re doing business with,” Goidel said. “I’m not saying get rid of all oversight, but it’s very hard to operate as a business if we don’t have control over costs and we have no control over price.”

Goidel said Louisiana ultimately will have the type of higher education that the general public demands.

Right now, he said, Louisiana is more focused on providing access to as many students as possible and making college as affordable as possible, at the expense of other considerations, including the quality of institutions.

He used the example of the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, better known as the TOPS scholarship, that pays tuition and some fees to Louisiana students who graduate high school with at least a 2.5 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale. Students also must score at least a 20 out of a possible 36 on the ACT standardized test.

The standards are much more modest than for similar programs in other states, and the cost to the state has increased steadily as the number of students eligible for TOPS has skyrocketed from 18,000 in 1998 to 45,000 this year.

Goidel, and others, have argued that TOPS is too expensive for the state to maintain, but lawmakers don’t make serious attempts to tweak the program because of how popular it is with students and parents.

“There’s no uproar for cutting higher ed, but if you cut TOPS, people would be protesting at the State Capitol,” he said.