Are Louisiana’s Higher Ed Problems Viral?

Not to be alarmist, but they're coming for you next.


February 8, 2015

Look with me, if you will, into the petri dish of Louisiana, for what it might predict for the future of American higher ed.

Governor Bobby Jindal (R) has said he’ll cut state funding to higher education in the next fiscal year by $200 million to $300 million. That’s about “the total public operating budget for the Louisiana Community and Technical College System [LCTCS] in 2014-15.” 

Put another way, it’s somewhere between 20% and 30% of the public operating budget for “ALL of LSU—including the medical school, law school, Alexandria campus, Pennington Biomedical Research Center, etc.” That doesn’t mean just 20-30% of state funding; it’s the equivalent of 20-30% of everything “including money collected from tuition, the federal government and dedicated funding streams....” 

Even The American Conservative reports that some Louisiana Republicans believe “[Jindal’s] destroyed LSU.”

There are three university systems in Louisiana: the Louisiana State University (LSU) System (43,000 students at LSU main campus, its five satellite campuses, Law Center, and Health Division); the University of Louisiana System (90,000 students at nine universities, including University of New Orleans, Grambling, McNeese State, et al.); and the Southern University System (14,000 students at five campuses). The Board of Regents also oversees the LCTCS (111,000 unduplicated annual enrollment at 13 community and technical colleges). Everyone will be affected, of course, not just LSU.

Higher ed in the state began to suffer as soon as Jindal took office in 2008. State funding has been cut by “43.2 percent per student since 2008, a larger decrease than any state but Arizona,” reports the Times-Picayune. There are a thousand fewer full-time college faculty now than when Jindal became governor, and LSU has placed 46th in the nation for flagship funding. 

Correspondingly, “Louisiana...ranked eighth among states which have increased tuition at higher education institutions the most since 2008....” Much of this has been paid for by the state’s Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS). The $250 million program is hugely popular, of course, as it pays college tuition for just about any full time student with a high school GPA of 2.5 and an ACT of 20. It won’t get cut first, but the shortfall could gobble all of it and more. 

When I arrived in the state in 2012 I noted signs of stress—hiring freezes, pay freezes, unfinished building repair, bigger class loads, an obsession with tracking student attendance but a refusal to let attendance figure into grading, pleas for us to do anything to keep students enrolled—but other things seem obvious only in retrospect, such as administrators’ apparent fear to ask for anything for their units, even when it was badly needed.

This year, campuses were told to brace for possible mid-year cuts even before next year’s dreaded budget was announced. Friday’s news says higher ed won’t take that particular hit. Still, when you consider what might be lost this fall from what universities typically provide in order to call themselves universities, the situation is shocking—library services, writing centers, graduate assistantships, payment for undergrad labor, travel funds, visiting scholars, instructorships....

Documents compiled for LSU System President F. King Alexander and obtained by The Associated Press reveal:

The potential implications of such hefty cuts were summed up in stark terms: 1,433 faculty and staff jobs eliminated; 1,572 courses cut; 28 academic programs shut down across campuses; and 6 institutions declaring some form of financial emergency.

At the system's flagship university in Baton Rouge, the documents say 27 percent of faculty positions would have to be cut, along with 1,400 classes, jeopardizing the accreditation of the engineering and business colleges. Some campus buildings would be closed.

‘These severe cuts would change LSU's mission as a public research and land-grant university. It will no longer be capable of competing with America's significant public universities and will find itself dramatically behind the rest of the nation,’ the documents say. 

So how’d Louisiana get here, and why is this potentially not just our problem? 

Jindal—whose former jobs include President of the UL System, and Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, ironically enough, since education and health care are the two things most in peril now, as I’ll explain below—is an extreme social and fiscal conservative. He is pushed even further in those tendencies by his desire to be President of the United States. 

As if trying to prove himself a pro-business standout in a crowded Republican field, his administration has provided more subsidies to corporations than any other state, in the same period in which higher ed began to suffer. ExxonMobil, eg, got 97 percent of its incentives from the state of Louisiana, even as the company made citizens sick. Every episode of Duck Dynasty you watch costs us $330,000. Worse, total subsidies of more than $11 billion have not had the desired effect

In addition to providing corporate incentives, the administration changed the tax structure

Louisiana was flush with cash when Jindal was inaugurated in January 2008. Federal hurricane money had been flowing in for two full years... The economy was robust. The budget surplus was north of $1 billion. And what did Jindal and the Legislature do? They agreed to raise the annual spending cap by — wait for it! — $1 billion, and they agreed to a partial repeal of the Stelly Plan [which] abolished the state sales tax on food, prescription drugs and some utilities and raised income taxes on upper middle class and wealthy taxpayers. While it was revenue-neutral in terms of the state budget, it helped lower-income Louisiana residents, who pay a bigger share of their income on basic necessities like food and utilities.

But those upper-income taxpayers...didn’t like it, and in 2008 the Legislature voted unanimously to move tax rates back to pre-Stelly levels. But they didn’t reprise the state sales taxes. [...] The Public Affairs Research Council warned that shifting away from relying on income taxes to buttress the budget would make the state reliant on oil and gas revenue and lead to the very boom-and-bust cycles we’ve been in for the last several years. [...] The result was a $358 million drop in state revenue for the next fiscal year and hundreds of millions less in revenue every year since.

With oil prices currently at six-year lows, Booby Jindal, desirous of being seen as an uber-capitalist, oddly has some of the same problems as Vlad Putin.

And because there are a “slew” of constitutional amendments that protect other state programs from cuts, leaving higher ed and healthcare unprotected, and because Jindal took “the Pledge” (“the Tax Protection Pledge hawked by Americans for Tax Reform, the group headed by anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist”), higher ed has taken the hit, and there’s no end in sight.

(Jindal has been unrepentant and intractable on these matters, and has proven himself willing to do whatever’s needed to court the far right. In January he spoke at a Louisiana Prayer rally hosted by the antigay American Family Association—held at LSU in Baton Rouge, of course—with fellow speaker Cindy Jacobs, a televangelist who claims to be able to change history and raise children from the dead.)

Ok, you may not live in an oil state plagued by hurricanes, and maybe your necromancers keep to themselves, but differences like those may be beside the point. Oil, it turns out, is only 14% of Louisiana’s economy, so falling oil prices may not be the key factor. “That is not to say Louisiana will be spared the pain, only that it may be more of a slow strangle than a sudden jolt, “ says the Times.

What many other places around the country do have in common with Louisiana is conservative politicians playing to populist sympathies in a fragile economy. All it takes to head down this road is to think of higher ed as just another business. Then, giving it “autonomy” (and cutting it loose from the welfare mentality of government funding) is to do it a favor in the market economy. 

LSU’s Alexander, who under duress is trying real hard, Ringo: "One of the ways is to provide greater university autonomy so the state can take the strings off of us and give us some freedoms that will help us save some money and generate some money."

Compare that with what’s happened in Wisconsin, unthinkably, in part due to another Republican governor with aspirations to be President: “[Scott] Walker and his supporters... say the cuts combined with new flexibilities for the UW System would help it become more effective and efficient.” 

For a detailed discussion of what happened in Wisconsin, see this piece by Richard Grusin, Director of the Center for 21st Century Studies at UW-Milwaukee, which describes a nearly identical situation with the one in Louisiana: 

In considering the financial situation in Wisconsin, it is important to recognize that the current budget crisis is not, as in 2008, a systematic breakdown, but the product of political decisions made by Walker and the Republican legislature in Madison. The deficit has been manufactured by $800 million in tax cuts, mainly to property owners, that the state could not afford. Unfortunately, rather than highlight this fact and suggest that the easiest way to get out of this budget crisis would be to roll back (if only temporarily) the tax cuts instituted in Walker’s first term, our University System leaders have accepted that deficit, and the reduced University funding that it has prompted, as a given, a natural fact like Lake Michigan or the North Woods.

Keep in mind: “Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal was elected chairman of the Republican Governors Association today and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was elected to serve as vice chairman. [Governor Scott Walker said,] ‘The American people want their political leaders to tackle the toughest issues, reform entitlements and balance budgets while holding the line on taxes. That’s exactly what Republican governors are doing.’”

Populism has its discontents. Jindal was kept in office the last seven years by some of the very people whose lives are now under attack. Even those who don’t work for university systems have a stake. Everyone in town seems to have a family member who went to the uni or is currently getting a degree, and one senses that diplomas are considered a measure of democracy’s success. But they’ve often voted against it. 

There are deep strains of anti-intellectualism and poshlust in American life, and populist politicians play to them. Folks see the new radio station and police headquarters going up on campus and assume we’re doing better than fine. I was told citizens complained to the Board that professors didn’t work hard enough, which is why so many office hours are required, even if they're counterproductive. A vocationalist attitude to higher education reigns. An entire class once told me cheerfully they hadn’t read the assigned essays because they weren’t important to what they wanted to do in life. (I’ve never encountered that before in 18 years of teaching.) In some ways it’s even understandable. Two young guys at the cash register at the supermarket explained to me they’d soon finish their degrees and start “throwing switches, easy work” at the chemical plant, for $72K a year, entry-level. 

Our local economy has been doing so well on petrochemicals in recent years that our roads are choked with new cars, housing is hard to find, and there’s new construction everywhere. But the South African company Sasol just pulled back from an $11 billion gas-to-liquid-fuel plant, which was seen as the Next Big Thing. In a piece called “I wanna know: Is the big boom coming or is it here?” the local news reported that a local port official said to a Spanish delegation, “In this city now you actually feel. It's like when you go to Hong Kong or New York or Madrid there's a friction, there's a, there's something going on here. That's what we feel now. It's, it's, it's coming." Something’s coming alright.

As soon as we all agree that education is merely instrumental, it’s easy for a politician currying favor to say that universities that can’t thrive without support in a free market are commodities we don’t need. 

I’m told by my supervisor that my problems, after moving my family here and falling into this situation, are nothing special. I do understand it’s not about me, and that I’ll need to be ready to teach a 4/4 (or more) load, edit a national journal, serve as sole advisor for all prose theses, and read all applications to the program in my genre (about 5,000 pages). Expectations of publishing and service stand, and I still work toward tenure. The threat of campus or program closures—which is to say personal bankruptcy and foreclosure—also stands. It all feels special, but it’s merely the bottom line in a state that’s red in tooth and claw, a philosophy that may be coming soon to a government near you.

Correction: February 9, 2015
An earlier version stated there were two university systems in Louisiana. There are three.


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