LSU, SU scholarships evade lawmaker scrutiny

Aerial view of the Southern University campus in Baton Rouge. Show caption
Aerial view of the Southern University campus in Baton Rouge.

Auditor cites shortcomings in LSU process

A little-known program that gives board members at LSU and Southern University the ability to grant lucrative scholarships to students survived legislative threat this session, but some legislators say they are still eyeing the programs for restructuring — particularly following a legislative audit of the LSU awards.

The LSU Board of Supervisor scholarships — offered as waivers, rather than cash assistance — cost more than $1.35 million in tuition during the 2012-13 school year. Figures weren’t immediately available for recipients from the school year that just ended, per the university’s response to an open records request from The Advocate.

LSU says it is in the process of developing criteria for how board members give out those scholarships, following the release of the legislative auditor’s report that found inconsistencies and other lapses. The audit didn’t look into the similar, but significantly smaller, program at Southern University.

Opponents worry that the scholarships are going only to well-connected students — based more on having the right connections, rather than achievement or need.

State Rep. Dee Richard, No Party-Thibodaux, had proposed legislation this session that would have done away with the board-given scholarships, but he said he didn’t push House Bill 334 during the session. It never had a hearing.

“Hindsight’s 20/20,” Richard said this week, following the auditor’s report. “I’m going to bring it back next year. I think it needs to be done.”

He said he was disappointed to see in the audit that there are no standardized criteria for handing out LSU supervisors’ tuition waivers, and some applications likely were lost in the shuffle because there was no organized system for handling them as they came in.

“Why should people appointed to boards get that opportunity?” Richard said. “We need to do something to control it.”

For some lawmakers, the scholarships are reminiscent of the controversial Tulane legislative scholarship program, which came into the spotlight amid revelations of political paybacks and transparency questions.

An attempt to establish guidelines for the that program also hit a dead end this session.

“I was very disappointed in the way it played out,” said state Sen. Dan Claitor, a Baton Rouge Republican who also sponsored the bill that now requires annual reporting of recipients of the supervisors’ scholarships.

Claitor said his concerns about the supervisors were more focused on the lack of transparency.

“I think just as a matter of human nature, what people do out of the view of the public is sometimes not what they would do if they were doing it on a stage in front of everyone else,” Claitor said. “We have a tremendous responsibility to be transparent in all branches of government. If that transparency helps us to administer that in a better manner, I’m proud of that.”

He shied away from calling for a complete end to the program, but still expressed skepticism of it.

“If they administer it well, and it’s something the supervisors can be proud of, it’s one thing. But if it’s given out willy-nilly and based on personal friendships, I’d think that’s something that’s tough to be proud of,” he said.

Richard said he’s not sure if anything will happen with his legislation to end the scholarships next year, but he hopes it will at least shed light on the little-known program.

The Advocate analyzed data provided on the recipients in the first year of required reporting — the 2012-2013 school year. More than $431,000 worth of scholarships went to students from other states attending LSU. Each board member is allowed to give two of his 20 scholarships to out-of-state students, and out-of-state students made up the 30 highest dollar awards — the most expensive valued at $19,603 for a student at LSU Health Sciences Center New Orleans.

The 15 supervisors, who are appointed by the governor, have defended the program as a way to help students with grad school and professional programs. Students who receive TOPS, the state’s generous tuition assistance program for undergrads, cannot get supervisors’ scholarships from either LSU’s or Southern’s board.

Daniel Layzell, vice president for finance and administration, said in the university’s response to the audit that the auditor’s recommendations would be implemented, including adoption of a policy for handling applications and developing criteria for the awards.

The information provided by the university showed that, overall, LSU board member Stanley Jacobs awarded 19 scholarships — more than any board member — totaling $117,229 during the 2012-2013 school year. With 18 scholarships awarded, member Ray Lasseigne’s total value was the highest at $125,969.

The system president also is able to award the scholarships. Former Interim LSU Chancellor and President William Jenkins awarded six in 2012-2013 and five in 2013-2014. New Chancellor and President F. King Alexander awarded three in the 2013-2014 school year, per the audit’s findings.

The Advocate obtained information about the board-selected 2013-2014 recipients through its records request. The only details available were the names of students and the supervisors who sponsored them. In responding to the records request, attorney W. Shelby McKenzie said LSU is in the process of collecting information on the dollar amounts of each award in preparation for the annual report’s August 1 deadline.

The preliminary data show 232 scholarships were awarded, up from the 207 awarded the previous year.

Former board member John George, who resigned his supervisors’ seat this week, was the only person to award all 20 scholarships allowed. Member Scott Ballard awarded 18, while Ray Lasseigne, Blake Chatelain and James Moore each awarded 17. Student Government President John Woodard, the only student member on the board, also gave out scholarships to 17 fellow students.

Through a board resolution, a scholarship was given to Woodard. The previous year, the board also gave, through resolution, one of the scholarships to former SGA President and law student Justin Mannino when he was on the board, records show. Mannino awarded 15 scholarships while serving as the student member on the board.

Woodard praised the scholarships in the LSU newspaper, The Daily Reveille, earlier this year. “It would be a shame for those scholarships to be taken away,” he told the student publication.

LSU supervisors don’t vote on approval of the scholarships awarded by individual board members, and the audit concluded that there is no standard procedure for members to review applications.

According to the Southern system’s report on 2012-2013 recipients, supervisors there handed out that year 56 scholarships, which were done on a per semester basis. As a whole, the board is capped at handing out 38 scholarships per semester — broken down from five recommendations from the chairman to two recommendations for board members. The recipients are reviewed by a System Scholarship Committee.

Some students received scholarships for multiple semesters, and at least one student received scholarships from multiple supervisors, based in the 2012-2013 report.

The report doesn’t show the dollar value for each student, as Act 340 requires, so it’s unclear how much the Southern scholarships cost the system in total. According to the system’s criteria for the awards, they are valued at $1,000 each, but the formal report notes that the amounts ranged from $285 to $2,500. All but three went toward students attending Southern University in Baton Rouge, where tuition was $2,906 per semester. The report says scholarships were given in the form of partial tuition waivers.

At LSU, the board scholarships typically are for a full year and individual students didn’t receive multiple awards from different board members.

The audit notes the simplicity of the LSU application — it asks for basic biographical information, grade-point average and ACT scores. It also asks for the student’s parents’ names, as well as whether the student has any siblings in college or high school. It instructs applicants to provide other relevant information on the back, but doesn’t explicitly ask for an essay or justification for why the student should be selected.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of the Louisiana Legislature, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politics blog.