Generating dollars for LSU should be a bigger priority than whether to merge the jobs of Baton Rouge chancellor and system president, former Chancellor Mark Emmert said Friday.
“The university needs a lot of support,” Emmert said.
“It has got some significant financial challenges like a lot of public universities, and I think those are a more pressing issue for them,” he added.
Emmert, who is president of the NCAA, made his comments in a brief interview after speaking at the 40th anniversary celebration of the LSU Public Administration Institute.
He is also here for LSU’s game on Saturday night against the University of Washington, where he used to be president.
LSU’s budget has been tight in the past four years as state funding for higher education was sliced by more than $420 million, including $66 million this year. That includes $19 million in reductions at the Baton Rouge campus, which triggered program mergers and less money going to some academic departments.
Former LSU System President John Lombardi was dismissed in April.
Former Baton Rouge campus Chancellor Michael Martin left last month to become the head of the Colorado State University System.
William Jenkins, who has served as both system president and chancellor of the Baton Rouge campus, came out of retirement in the spring to fill both vacancies temporarily.
Last month members of a consulting firm helping LSU find a new president presented the Board of Supervisors with three options, two of which included consolidating the president and Baton Rouge chancellor positions.
Asked about that, Emmert said neither option offers anything like a silver bullet for issues facing the school. “You can make it work either way,” he said.
“The board is going to have to look at all the options,” Emmert said. “They have a complex organizational structure, especially with the medical schools and hospitals in there.”
Emmert said the need for a top-flight flagship school is vital.
“What I know is that in the 21st century economy, a state like Louisiana has to have a university that can attract the best and the brightest to drive its economy, to provide its citizens with world class education and research,” he said.
“You look at the communities and states across the country that are successful and in the core of that is always a strong, research-intensive university,” Emmert said.
“You go to Austin, Texas, you go to Stanford and Palo Alto, you go to Seattle, Wash., you go to Boston, at the core right now what is really driving the economy is innovation and research,” he said.
“And the state has got to have at least one university that can play at the highest level and that is LSU,” Emmert said.
Emmert was chancellor of the Baton Rouge campus from 1999-2004.
He left to become president of the University of Washington, which he attended, before becoming head of the NCAA in 2010.
Emmert, whose name surfaces periodically as a hoped for target to return to LSU, was asked during a question-and-answer session what it would take for that to happen.
“I’m here,” he laughed.
Emmert added, “I absolutely love what I am doing now. It has no shortage of challenges.”
He also complimented the decision of the LSU Athletic Department — essentially the football program — to transfer $7.2 million per year, or $36 million over five years, to support university academics.
The LSU Board of Supervisors approved the move on Friday.
“It is a very, very unusual circumstance,” he told a crowd of about 200.
Emmert said LSU and the University of Washington are two of just 17 Division I schools with positive cash flows in their athletic departments.
“Everyone else has to subsidize the athletic department,” he said.
Ron Richard, president and chief executive officer of the Tiger Athletic Foundation, rose during the question-and-answer session to ask Emmert who he will be cheering for during the game Saturday night.
“I dearly love watching LSU football,” Emmert said.
“I want them to win every game every year unless they are playing the Huskies,” he said, a reference to the nickname of the University of Washington.
However, Emmert said the point spread — LSU by just over 23 earlier this week — was “probably about right.”
“There will be no bet,” the NCAA president laughed.