Joe Savoie has overseen campus, academic changes

Advocate staff file photo by BRYAN TUCK -- University of Louisiana at Lafayette President Joseph Savoie. Show caption
Advocate staff file photo by BRYAN TUCK -- University of Louisiana at Lafayette President Joseph Savoie.

UL-Lafayette academics, campus underwent facelifts

The University of Louisiana at Lafayette isn’t the university it was five years ago when Joseph Savoie took over leadership of the campus.

It’s changed physically — with construction of new student housing completed last year and other major campus renovations continuing. Some academic programs have been eliminated, while new ones have been created to meet job demands.

Though tuition and admission standards have increased, enrollment has not lagged. And, private support for both academic and athletic programs has flourished.

“In the past five years, I’m encouraged that we’ve been able to make progress at the same time our state funding has been significantly reduced,” Savoie said earlier this month.

Between 2008-09 and 2012-13, the university’s funding was reduced by $44 million, while its costs for retirement and insurance increased by $9.3 million.

Savoie said the university leveraged the reduction in state funding through some creative department reorganizations, tuition increases and new revenue with the development of new online programs.

Student-approved fees also are helping pay for updates on the campus, including those projects identified in a master plan developed with campus and community input.

“A lot of times, institutions will stand firm and not do anything new and kind of weather the storm,” Savoie said. “We’ve tried to continue to make progress while our budget was significantly reduced by the state. Overall, I’m pleased with the progress. I wish we could have made a lot more faster, but we can only do what resources will allow.”

Savoie was selected as the university’s president in late 2007 following longtime President Ray Authement’s announcement of his retirement after more than 30 years as the university’s leader.

It also marked Savoie’s return to the campus where he began his career in higher education before serving as the state’s commissioner of higher education for 12 years.

As part of the transition, advisory groups reviewed all aspects of university operations from academics to facilities.

Their findings shaped a strategic plan for the university that was implemented when Savoie assumed the role of president in July 2008. The university will start another round of strategic planning in the spring, he said.

“We’ve been pursuing this roadmap, which was developed with faculty, students, staff and community input,” Savoie said.

Savoie said he would like to see greater strides in employee pay because employees haven’t had a raise in the past four years. Savoie said it’s possible that funding may be available for pay raises in the coming year, depending upon state funding.

“It appears that higher education funding may stabilize this year,” he said. “We’re working on some creative solutions for raises.”

Meanwhile, the university’s Faculty Senate is working on a new merit-based evaluation system, the first evaluation change in a decade, and Savoie is searching for internal funding to help test out the new system, said James McDonald, head of the university’s English department and Faculty Senate president.

“I know that the president is working on something so that there will be some kind of raise next fall, even if there’s no money coming out of Baton Rouge. I’m not expecting there to be a large raise, but any raise would be appreciated,” McDonald said. “We’ll be able to see how well the system will work and what kind of adjustments we’d like to see in the future after that.”

With the cuts in the university’s budget, raises were put on hold, but the freeze has lasted longer than anticipated and has affected faculty morale and made it difficult to retain and recruit new faculty, he said.

“It hits us most hard with the people we’ve brought in more recently. We have assistant professors and associate professors who haven’t seen a raise since we hired them. Those are the people you’re counting on in the future,” he said.

While raises haven’t been possible in the past few years, McDonald said Savoie collaborated with the Faculty Senate to provide some relief for instructors and full-time faculty through rank and salary restructures.

Previously, instructors were hired at the same rate of pay for their entire career. Savoie supported a Faculty Senate recommendation to create rank levels with different salary levels to allow instructors to be promoted and to adjust salary ranks for full-time faculty positions.

Savoie also has been receptive to faculty input on academic program evaluations, McDonald said. Previously, faculty members served on program review committees, but they were appointed by administration, he said.

Now, the Faculty Senate recommends members serve on the review committees and help shape criteria to determine a program’s viability or elimination, McDonald said.

More input from campus and community members is also shaping the future of the university. In 2011, the university started a master planning process for future development of the main campus and its university research park property, including the Cajundome and Cajundome Convention Center.

Savoie said the idea is to create a hub of retail, housing, and restaurants, public-private research endeavors and an expansion of the convention center, including a new hotel.

Students approved a new student fee of $7.50 per credit hour in October 2012 to support master plan projects. The fee is capped at 15 hours or $112.50 per student with the potential of generating about $2.7 million annually.

“Students have been helpful with their master plan fee,” he said. “They participated in and support the continual development of the campus.”

As the state covers less and less of university operational expenses, the university is growing more reliant on generating new revenue.

“Our funding model is shifting from a traditional public school model to more and more like a private school model,” Savoie said. “Self-generated revenue is now about 70 percent of our budget.”

The university launched a scholarship drive last year to help offset the impact of tuition increases on students and surpassed its initial goal of $3 million by raising $5 million in scholarship donations, he said.

“The whole notion behind public universities is to be accessible to the public, and if you price yourself out of the market, you’re out of reach of those who could benefit the most,” Savoie said. “We’ve tried to be sensitive to that through increasing scholarship offers to students.”