Capitol news bureau
August 21, 2012
“Louisiana doesn’t force you to earn your salary. The bureaucracy here prevents leaders from leading.” Michael Martin, former LSU chancellor
Sitting in his office a few days before leaving Baton Rouge last week, LSU Chancellor Michael Martin talked about what his legacy would be after spending four years leading the flagship campus.
“Louisiana doesn’t force you to earn your salary,” Martin said in an interview before his departure to lead the Colorado State University System. “The bureaucracy here prevents leaders from leading.”
With tuition and curriculum authority in the hands of the state Legislature, Martin said, it’s hard for higher education leaders to move an institution toward a particular vision, which is what they are hired to do.
Instead, Martin chose to exit LSU with one year left on his contract, leaving about $625,000 in salary and bonuses on the table.
Part of Martin’s 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,” the 61 member institutions making up the Association of American Universities that are recognized for academic excellence, he said.
“In Louisiana, the rules are so complicated and the bureaucracy is so indoctrinated, it’s difficult to move an institution in a certain direction or get much done,” Martin said. “It’s like a pushing a boulder up a hill.”
Gov. Bobby Jindal declined an interview through staffers Friday. His press office offered an emailed statement touting both the 2010 LA GRAD Act, which gives colleges the authority to raise tuition 10 percent annually after hitting certain academic benchmarks, and last year’s LA GRAD Act 2.0, which eases state intervention in giving universities more freedom to move forward with contracts, purchasing and construction projects.
“The reality is that we’ve implemented reforms that give more flexibility to higher education institutions in return for better outcomes,” the statement read.
Gripes aside, Martin reflected on how the “blue-collar guy” from Crosby, Minn., found himself sitting in a big office on a campus overseeing roughly 30,000 students and thousands more faculty and staff.
As an economics major in college who went on to earn numerous advanced degrees, Martin started his academic career in the 1970s admittedly by chance while working a summer job as a carpenter in Minnesota.
“I wanted to be a city planner,” Martin said. But a friend persuaded him to apply for a job as an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
“Eight days later, I got the job. That job persuaded me higher education was the right thing for me to do long term,” Martin said.
After four decades in higher education spanning six states, Martin, 66, thought his career would ultimately wind down in Baton Rouge.
But when Martin accepted the job as LSU’s eighth chancellor in 2008, he said he didn’t realize he was stepping on “a slippery slope” of reduced state funding, which led to layoffs, program cutbacks and a general sense that the school was teetering on the edge of a financial cliff.
There is one particular one-liner Martin is fond of repeating. It has to do with him starting his job at LSU around the time Hurricane Gustav swept through Baton Rouge in September 2008. “Since then, it’s been one storm after another,” Martin deadpans.
From his office at Thomas Boyd Hall a little more than a week ago, Martin listed examples of the other storms that have characterized his time at LSU.
The university has seen a 43 percent reduction in state appropriations since 2008, totaling $108 million in lost revenues including a $19 million cut for the fiscal year that started July 1, Martin said.
“When I started here, the state paid 65 percent of our budget and the students paid the other 35 percent through tuition,” Martin said. “Now it’s the complete opposite in four years.”
Martin said some people might define his tenure by some of the shiny new objects he helped shepherd into place, including a $10 million band hall; the 14-years-in-the-making, $56 million Business Education Complex completed earlier this year; and multiple campus beautification projects.
Other people, Martin said, could credit him for seeing through the Forever LSU fundraising campaign started under Chancellor Sean O’Keefe, which reached $790 million, surpassing its original goal of $750 million.
But Martin sees his legacy as “preserving the progress made by others during great budget stress.”
“I didn’t let LSU be dragged down by cuts, he said.”
Interim LSU System President William Jenkins, who also is serving as interim chancellor until Martin is replaced, said his former colleague should take credit for his “steady hand” in steering the university post-Gustav and during multiple rounds of budget cuts.
One of Martin’s closest confidantes and frequent golfing partner, Jack Weiss, chancellor of the LSU Law Center, sees it the same way.
Weiss, who calls Martin “one of the most authentic people-persons” he’s ever met, described his friend as a visionary who never got to see his vision played out. The overall environment was consistent financial siege and not conducive to fulfillment of progress and enhancement, Weiss said.
“His legacy is incomplete because he really wasn’t here long enough to make the impact he could’ve over a longer period,” Weiss said.
Legacy aside, Martin said he’s content that he’s leaving LSU at a time when both graduation and retention rates are rising.
“Given all that’s happened, LSU is in a solid position carrying the flag for the state” Martin said. “We’re about to welcome either the first or second biggest freshman class this fall, so people are willing to bet on LSU. I think it’s a bet worth making.”