Consultant: LSU in need of $200 million boost

Advocate staff file photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND --  LSU Quad Show caption
Advocate staff file photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- LSU Quad

Despite its status as the premier university in Louisiana, LSU is not one of the country’s most well-respected academic institutions, members of LSU’s Transition Advisory Team said Monday.

The group, led by consultant Christel Slaughter, is three days away from making public its recommendations on the best way to consolidate LSU’s separate institutions under the main campus in Baton Rouge.

The effort is called LSU2015. The goal is to transform LSU into an elite academic university.

Slaughter estimated it would take at least $200 million in cash for LSU to become the type of globally competitive institution that could attract some of the world’s most prominent academics and researchers.

It would take roughly that amount of money for LSU to attract more graduate students, expand undergraduate research, begin replacing the 200 faculty members lost in the past four years and give remaining faculty a pay increase, members of the advisory team stated.

LSU System President King Alexander said raising that amount of money will be especially tough in the current climate when states, including Louisiana, are scaling back support for higher education.

“I’d like to think somewhere in the middle is the reality. It will take $40 million alone, just for us to get our 220 faculty back,” Alexander said.

“You can’t wish your way to national and international prominence.”

One particular area LSU could stand to improve is the number of research dollars being generated. LSU’s research funds have been drying up in recent years as faculty have left and taken their grant money with them.

In higher education circles, research expenditures are looked at as one of the best ways to determine a university’s growth over time.

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

LSU currently spends about $160 million in federal grant money annually on research.

Transition Advisory Team member Jim Firnberg said the goal should be somewhere between $250 million to $350 million.

But Firnberg added that it will be difficult to reach those numbers. A university typically will have to spend between $600,000 and $2 million to attract one high-quality researcher and the support staff capable of bringing in millions of dollars in federal grants, he said.

“This is a very scary environment, and given the scarce resources, it is even scarier,” Firnberg said.

In the six months the Transition Advisory Team has been meeting, one of the recurring themes is the need for LSU to build its own research niche — essentially identifying areas where the university could compete nationally based on its location and the infrastructure in place.

So far, team members have identified environmental science and coastal research; biomedical sciences; energy; digital media; arts and humanities; and agricultural and natural resources.

Team member Lee Griffin, of Baton Rouge, however, urged the group to consider narrowing that list down to one or two priorities as a practical matter.

“Six areas seem to be too many to get done,” Griffin said. “In my experience in the business world, you can’t have six or eight or 10 key priorities.”

After the meeting, Alexander agreed with the scaled-back approach.

After spending his first month on the job touring LSU’s different campuses, Alexander said LSU could take advantage of an expanding Louisiana energy market and also the university’s health-science-related institutions in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Shreveport.

“Those are obvious in terms of things we can do really well in,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we have to abandon those other areas. But with energy, and our state’s natural resources, for instance, there’s a possibility we can be a national leader.”

The Transition Advisory Team is expected to submit its final recommendations to LSU’s Board of Supervisors on Friday.