Officials: Public colleges hurting

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RICHARD ALAN HANNON /
Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- LSU System President William Jenkins, center, testifies Thursday in front of the Senate Committee on Finance as Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell, left, and University of Louisiana System Sandra Woodley look on.

College and university leaders on Thursday told a state legislative panel that repeated cuts to higher education are compromising their ability to be competitive nationwide.

Speaking in front of the state Senate Committee on Finance, state Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell used the moment to highlight LSU and Baton Rouge Community College.

The state has cut LSU by 53 percent — $125 million — since 2008, while BRCC has absorbed a 51 percent cut equaling $10.7 million over the same time period.

A major research institution like LSU can’t fulfill its mission with that type of year-after-year budget uncertainty, Purcell said. And BRCC can’t adequately fill the area’s workforce needs with that dramatic a decline in state funding, he added.

Louisiana pays its teachers the lowest rates among peer institutions in the South, all while cutting 9 percent of staff in recent years to save money and also grappling with the rising costs of unfunded mandates from the state, he said.

“We realize a highly subsidized higher education system will not be the case in Louisiana, but stable support is critical,” Purcell said. “Louisiana needs higher education to remain viable. This is your time to show your support when higher education is at its most vulnerable.”

LSU System President William Jenkins said he has “great concern” over the future of higher education in the state.

If legislators were to adopt Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposed spending plan to fund higher education next year, it would represent an 84.5 percent state budget cut to colleges and universities since 2008.

Jenkins said LSU suffered the “steady attrition” of high-quality faculty members over the past several years as a result of the budget cuts.

“The strength of a university depends on faculty and support staff,” Jenkins said. “It’s hard to stay competitive when you start losing quality faculty.”

Jenkins said the student-to-faculty ratio at LSU has risen from 18-to-1 to 23-to-1 in recent years.

“I can’t look you in the eye today and tell you we are going to be able to hold our position,” Jenkins said. “It’s just not possible; it’s sad.”

University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley addressed the increasing call for institutions to become more accountable academically. “Institutions should be held accountable for the performance they have the ability to achieve based on their resources,” she said.

Southern University System President Ronald Mason used the occasion to question whether higher education is being starved for sinister reasons.

“It raises the question that maybe the change agenda is more about closing down some schools. If so, Southern in Baton Rouge may be the first domino to fall,” Mason said. “What happens in this session will go a long way to determining what the agenda is. I hope the agenda is really about enabling higher education to transform and not about closing institutions.”