When he led LSU as its system president, William Jenkins occasionally asked the university’s supporters if they’d be happy with a Tiger football team that aspired to be merely average.
Jenkins’ point was that while no sports fan would feel content with such a goal, policy makers for many years have been satisfied with using the Southern regional average as a yardstick for support of the university’s academic programs.
Aiming for “average” is no way to win on the gridiron, Jenkins was fond of saying, and it’s no way to win the race for the best and brightest students.
Jenkins’ advice should come to mind when reading today’s Advocate story comparing the academic vitality of LSU with the University of Alabama.
The sports rivalry between the two universities is the stuff of legend. But LSU and Alabama are also competing to attract good students and advance their stature as learning institutions on the national stage.
That’s a contest with bigger and more serious implications than which university scores the most touchdowns. And it’s a competition in which LSU has cause to worry.
In the past five years, Alabama has added more than 400 new faculty members to its campus while, in the same period, LSU saw 220 of its faculty members leave.
In the past decade, Alabama has grown its enrollment from 20,000 to just under 35,000, while LSU lost 2,000 students, placing its enrollment at just fewer than 30,000.
LSU has about a dozen recruiters working to attract out-of-state students; Alabama has 33. Attracting out-of-state students is a promising way to grow a campus, which is why Alabama was in a better position to withstand its state budget cuts during the national economic downturn. Alabama has an aggressive building program on campus, while LSU is struggling to maintain the buildings it already has.
LSU has some distinct advantages over Alabama, too, especially in its spending on research, which still far outpaces that of Alabama. But Alabama has profited from flexible tuition policies and smart fiscal strategies that aren’t available to LSU leaders because of legislative impediments.
Those challenges need attention from the governor and lawmakers if LSU is to compete with Alabama and other regional peers in the classroom as well as the locker room.
That competition, more than any football game, is where the future of LSU and Louisiana will be decided.