Most in higher education would say that it’s tough to find people with the skills and aptitudes to be a flagship university president or the head of a system of campuses. The Louisiana State University is now looking for someone who can do both.
The system’s Board of Supervisors voted Friday – to the surprise of those not on the board -- to merge the positions of president of the Louisiana State University System and chancellor of Louisiana State University A&M, the flagship campus in Baton Rouge. Both positions were vacated earlier this year, and the board will now begin to search for someone to fill the new merged position.
This coming Friday, the board is likely to vote on several other measures to restructure the system, vesting more power in a central administration based at the flagship, eventually creating a “flagship system” for the state.
“If the board adopts this plan, it’s really not a system anymore,” said Richard Novak, senior vice president for programs and research at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges and author of several reports since this summer that have explored the board’s options and spelled out a path forward. “It would become a single institution that meets the needs of different communities in different ways.”
The ultimate thrust of the restructuring, according to a report produced by the Association of Governing Boards in advance of Friday’s vote, would be “improved academic rankings, greater capacity for research, greater potential for fund-raising and more collaboration among the various campuses.” The restructuring would consolidate several research divisions typically associated with flagship institutions, including health science centers, a law school, and a biomedical research center, with the main Baton Rouge campus, and give clearer direction to three branch campuses in Shreveport, Alexandria, and Eunice.
Components of LSU System
Louisiana State University
LSU Paul M. Hebert Law School
LSU Agricultural Center
LSU Pennington Biomedical Research Center
LSU Health Sciences Center New Orleans
LSU Health Sciences Center Shreveport
LSU Health Care Services Division
But there is some concern among higher education observers that the governing board and new president’s attention will be so focused on the main research university enterprise – a complex institution to manage – that the branch campuses could fall by the wayside.
Balancing the interests of flagship and regional institutions has been a struggle for several states in recent years, notably in Wisconsin and Oregon , where flagships unsuccessfully pushed for independence from system control. Unlike those states, where a single system dominates each state's higher education apparatus, the LSU system is not responsible for representing all institutions in the state.
The model the LSU board is moving toward resembles those in place at Indiana University and the University of Michigan, where the president and central administration of the flagship campus also oversee several distributed institutions, many of which have subordinate campus leadership. The structure is designed to balance competing interests among disparate institutions but generally give preference to one set of goals and objectives, typically those of the flagship institution. Those states also have multiple systems. Unlike the University of Michigan, however, whose regional campuses were always under the flagship's administration, LSU's move will likely change the relationship between the flagship and regional institutions.
But the move does fit in a larger discussion about consolidations, mergers, and system restructuring that has affected public higher education in recent years, particularly as state funding for higher education becomes scarce and politicians have faced pressure to improve affordability, access, and completion at such institutions.
A History of Complications
The Louisiana State University system’s board and central administration have been struggling for several years to figure out how to manage the multifarious institutions under their control.
Unlike many other systems where a flagship research campus oversees many of the research enterprises, the Louisiana State University system acquired and developed stand-alone campuses for health science, law, agriculture, and biomedical research, each with its own campus administration. As a result, the Baton Rouge campus lacks several research enterprises that many flagships tend to have.
At the same time, the system has two four-year branch campuses in Shreveport and Alexandria and a two-year campus in Eunice.
Louisiana also has two other systems of four-year institutions – the University of Louisiana System and the Southern University System –- as well as a system of community and technical colleges.
So unlike a system like the University of California, which serves one type of institution and all such institutions in its state, the LSU system represents institutions with a wide array of missions and serving a variety of constituents. And unlike a system like the University of North Carolina, the LSU system does not oversee all four-year institutions in its state.
In recent years, a strong lobby called the “flagship coalition”  began arguing for a greater consolidation of the Baton Rouge campus with the other research enterprises, as well as freedom from some state regulations and potentially breaking off the Shreveport, Alexandria, and Eunice campuses. A second push was made to merge the Shreveport campus with Louisiana Technical University and the health sciences center in that region to create a more regionally oriented institution.
The problem with those scenarios, critics say, is that they balkanize the political power of the LSU system. The system already competes for funding against three other systems with statewide reach. Dividing the system into separate institutions would create more competition while diluting each campus’s political leverage.
The plan adopted by the board Friday was one of three scenarios laid out by Novak in a report this summer, all three of which were based around the idea of making a more consolidated system. The first was to strengthen the system’s administration to better-manage the competing interests within the system. The second called for a merger of the president and chancellor and a gradual integration of the campuses. The final scenario called for an expedited timeline in which the board would create a new executive position of a integrated flagship institution that would incorporate all the constituent parts of the system and build the administration down from there.
The board did not entertain the idea of breaking off parts of the system into separate institutions.
That third plan is what the board began to adopt on Friday. Under the proposed model, leadership would no longer be divvied up by campus. Instead, the president would oversee a series of executive vice presidents of health affairs and agriculture, who would oversee such affairs on the various campuses, and a senior executive vice president and provost, who would oversee chancellors at the three branch campuses and law school.
Higher education observers said the likely result of the LSU plan would be a strengthening of the academic and research missions of the Baton Rouge campus and the law, health science, and agriculture divisions. Aims McGuinness, a senior associate at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, said consolidating those institutions, has been widely agreed upon as a good move for the state.
But McGuinness said those institutions combined are enough for one board and central administration, and that there is a risk that the regional campuses might not get the attention they need.
“Regional institutions are always weakened when the priorities of the flagship become prominent,” said Jane Wellman, executive director of the National Association of System Heads.
Friday’s vote left a bad taste in the mouths of faculty members, said Kevin Cope, chairman of the LSU-Baton Rouge Faculty Senate.
Cope said faculty leaders did not see the Association of Governing Board’s plans until Friday’s meeting, and were surprised that the board voted to create the new position when it wasn’t on the agenda. He also said faculty have not had much of a chance to provide input on the measure. Two meetings of faculty leaders with board members were poorly attended on the board’s part, he said, and the only other time the faculty has had to voice concerns has been during public comments periods of board meetings.
The faculty complaints so far have centered on the process by which the board is going about the transformation, in see they view significant influence by the state’s governor, whom many faculty describe as hostile to traditional academic institutions.
Cope said faculty members are working to speak out against the board's actions in time for another meeting this Friday when board members will discuss and possibly vote on measures that could more greatly integrate aspects of the system. But Cope said faculty members face significant constraints on their time that might hinder their efforts.
A Trend of Consolidation
Merging the two executive roles in the LSU system and eventually consolidating the system fit into two broad themes of consolidation that have emerged in recent years: a push to create efficiencies and save money and a push to improve the research standing of some institutions without creating new structures.
Wellman said consolidation of one form or another is on the agenda for system leaders in multiple states. In Georgia, the state’s Board of Regents proposed consolidating four pairs of institution, mostly for administrative savings, but also to create a fourth major research university in the state. The State University of New York has established a series of “Campus Alliance Networks” between campuses to create administrative efficiencies, including consolidating the presidents of several institutions.
Several other universities, including the Texas A&M University System and Rutgers, in recent years have moved to consolidate medical centers with flagship campuses  to grow their research enterprises.
It is into this mold that the LSU talks best fit. The AGB reports note in several places how LSU’s rankings are generally lower than those of peer institutions and that the merger could raise the rankings, increase research funding, help attract better talent, and create other synergies to improve the institution’s academic profile.
Despite these advantages, Wellman and others said they don’t see what happened in Louisiana as likely to happen elsewhere. Most systems are too large and have too many competing interests for the kind of consolidation LSU is considering.
Officials at the three-campus University of Colorado system said their administration has actually moved in the opposite direction. About five years ago the system moved its president’s office away from Boulder, where the flagship campus is located, down to Denver.
“The president’s job as chief fund-raiser, chief lobbyist, and chief spokesperson was best done from Denver,” said Ken McConnellogue, vice president for university communication at the University of Colorado system.
Moving away from Boulder also had the effect of clarifying whose interests the system office was serving, McConnellogue said. “We feel like the move off campus to Denver brought substantial clarity,” McConnellogue said.