We're worse than Haiti?
Here's a fact that should make anyone who breathes the contaminated air in this state shudder: Haiti commits a greater percentage of its budget (13%) to higher education than Louisiana (11%).
That's right, the government of a third-world, impoverished nation still struggling to recover from a massive earthquake in 2010 invests more, on a percentage basis, in higher education than the government of Louisiana. That would be the same Louisiana that supposedly is in year five of the eight-year Louisiana miracle.
For those conditioned to respond to such dismal news by saying, “Well, at least we're not Mississippi,” consider that the Magnolia State commits 17.7% of its state budget to higher education, nearly 7 percentage points more than the Bayou State.
So pardon me if my reaction to the just-concluded regular legislative session is a bit more muted than that of those celebrating the “historic” reforms that were approved by Gov. Bobby Jindal and friends. No doubt it was a great session for those demanding reform of K-12 education, but it was another dismal one for higher education. It's gotten so bad that we're forced to celebrate a cut of just $66 million because it could have been as much as $225 million. Yet, remember, higher education must also cut $25 million between now and the end of the month, for a total hit this session of $91 million.
If you are keeping score at home, that's $451 million in budget cuts to higher education since the Jindal administration took office. Moreover, the administration—thanks to gutless special interest legislators—is now oh-fer-two in its attempts to merge a struggling four-year institution with another university, including one involving Southern University at New Orleans, recently rated as the worst-performing university in America.
To be clear, as egregious as state government's declining interest in funding higher education might be, it's hardly the only problem with a system that, frankly, is failing the people of Louisiana.
The entire structure of higher education in this state is fatally flawed. Our populist view of four-year universities is guaranteeing mediocrity—at best. Even worse, legislators don't view college campuses as places of learning, thinking and research; rather, they see them as job centers for their constituents.
We refuse to get serious about the important role two-year schools must play in workforce development, community education and providing an academic boost to those students not yet ready for a four-year university.
Too many college administrators and professors cling to beliefs from the past, rejecting the notion of evolution in the role and scope of higher education. Like their K-12 counterparts, they believe the only answer to every problem is more money. Yet the time has come when university officials must embrace the changing role of higher education in a knowledge-based world, including working more closely with the business and research communities and knocking down the barriers that make technology transfer and research commercialization almost impossible.
For years I have argued for a restructuring of higher education that sees LSU, the flagship institution, at the top of the academic and funding pyramid, followed jointly by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Louisiana Tech. All other four-year institutions either become community-based universities, with limited academic scope, or two-year junior colleges. Every university in the state is assigned areas of academic excellence, with funding and resources weighted to promote the growth of those academic disciplines. To be clear, this is not about giving LSU everything that it wants. If ULL or Louisiana Tech is better poised to offer excellence in a program, then LSU must do without it.
The state's higher education model is a failing one and, without question, it must evolve. Yet also true is that this state must get serious about funding its two-year and four-year institutions. LSU, ULL and Louisiana Tech are far more important to our future than any company or movie production that's been lured to this state with tax breaks and incentives. Our economic future rests with LSU, not Nucor.
It's time for Jindal and his legislative allies to get as serious about higher education reform as they were this year with K-12 reform. It's time university leaders embrace change and evolution. It's time for the rest of us to demand that we do better than a banana republic.
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Preston Armstrong Qvistgaard=Petersen
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