Our Views: Falling apart at the seams

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, part of the ceiling of an LSU building fell in. The concrete panel was in the ceramics studio of the College of Art and Design on the main campus in Baton Rouge.

Had the slab fallen in the busy studio on another day, somebody might well have been hurt, students told The Daily Reveille, the campus newspaper.

It is another example of the problem of deferred maintenance.

The studio has been in line for an overhaul in the state’s capital outlay process for more than a decade.

Louisiana’s colleges and universities are falling apart, but since 2008, the investments in maintaining them have lagged.

In the first year of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s tenure, money was not a problem because of ballooning tax receipts from hurricane recovery spending, particularly Katrina and Gustav. Those building and repair projects are only a memory now; since then, the governor and Legislature have had other priorities, hurricane-related revenues dwindled and tax cuts for wealthier taxpayers were all the rage. A national recession did not help.

Part of the problem is the nature of the capital outlay process, in which legislators insert more projects than there is money to pay for. Thus, this fall, Jindal had to cut $76 million, or $19 million from each of the four college boards, to make the numbers work. At least some money was left for capital outlay projects at colleges, but it’s not enough.

If the process has its faults, the main problem is lack of resources. That is why college boards have fallen out with each other in recent years, as money is scarce and the boards, like politicians everywhere, point fingers of blame and quarrel over what money is available.

As projects like the renovation of LSU’s art studios get pushed back for years, costs balloon. The university is now waiting for $15 million for the studio buildings.

And what happens is the competitiveness of state universities all across Louisiana is undermined. Who wants to become a professor or researcher at a university that can’t keep the roofs from falling in?

“I think we all feel really defeated by what’s going on,” art professor Mickey Walsh told the Reveille. “We find ourselves in a chronically difficult position because we value what we do, we have great students, we have a lot of momentum, we have a good program and we just don’t get supported.”

Walsh said administrators are doing the best they can. But the fact is that the example of the ceramics studio can be multiplied across the state.

An estimated $1.8 billion in deferred maintenance is on the books. Louisiana colleges can raise tuition only so much. For the few private-sector donors in a relatively poor state, it’s very unlikely that big gifts will be found for renovations or repairs of buildings.

Instead, there’s the wait of years and decades on the capital outlay list.

It’s no way to run a ceramics studio, nor a university.