Two for one

Two for one

Momentum builds within LSU's Board of Supervisors to select a single leader for the system and its flagship, despite concerns about favoritism and cohesion.


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William Jenkins was promoted from LSU A&M chancellor to system president in 1999, serving briefly in both positions until Mark Emmert was hired to lead the flagship. In 2004, Jenkins stepped into the breach between Emmert's departure and the hiring of Sean O'Keefe.



This year, Jenkins emerged from retirement to fill both jobs on an interim basis once again, after the board fired President John Lombardi and Chancellor Mike Martin left to become chancellor at Colorado State. When he returned in April, Jenkins only expected to be around for six months or so. But as summer turns to fall, there's no end in sight yet for his latest tour of duty.



“There's a finite time” that he will remain, Jenkins says. “This can't take years and years.” But he's committed to staying on until some major decisions have been made, possibly including the hiring of someone to fill both of his positions permanently.



While Jenkins serves as placeholder again, the Board of Supervisors has not yet officially decided whether to merge the jobs of president and chancellor, but there's clearly momentum in that direction. Board Chairman Hank Danos says members have “strong interest” in the idea; and Gov. Bobby Jindal, who appointed the current board, has come out in favor of consolidation. The final decision would have long-ranging and significant repercussions on the system.



Jenkins is careful to emphasize his deference to the board on any structural changes. And he says there's no one formula for success in higher education, because every university is different. Nonetheless, he says unifying the position, as part of consolidating the system's confederation of campuses and research units into a single institution, could help LSU reach the national prominence he's always hoped it would achieve.




“We're looking at savings, efficiency, greater harmony and synergy,” he says. “That will just make us nationally more competitive.”



He guesses $3 million to $5 million or so per year might be saved. For example, the system could maintain a single technology transfer office rather than several. Not huge numbers, but it would add up over time. He hopes the Legislature would look kindly upon the effort, rather than use it as an excuse to cut LSU by some like amount. 



Supporters say the change would help break down silos between campuses and lessen the tendency to bicker over funding. The feuding has not been limited to the various campuses. One such dispute involving the state's funding formula emerged in a series of emails late last year—between Lombardi, Martin and others.



“As you can see, [Lombardi] does not care much one way or the other,” wrote Jack Hamilton, who was executive vice chancellor of the main campus at the time, to Sean Reilly of the Louisiana Flagship Coalition. “Just an example that the system chooses to be aggressive only in harassing us, not in helping us.”



Unification also could lift LSU A&M 20 to 30 spots in some of the national rankings for research universities, Jenkins says, while helping to draw top faculty and students.




“When you have a cohesive, comprehensive research university, it becomes attractive for students, because there's so much going on and it's so easy to move amongst and between the programs,” Jenkins says.



MEANING OF A MERGER

The LSU System Board of Supervisors has asked the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges to study the idea of merging the positions of system president and flagship chancellor and creating “a single institution out of all member institutions.” Nine systems combine both executive positions, the AGB says. Elements of that approach at LSU might include:

• Postponing the leadership search for a full year, with a starting date for the new president of July 1, 2014;

• Having a single provost to oversee LSU's many schools, centers, and programs, reporting directly to the president;

• Having a CFO, chief advancement officer/foundation president, and vice presidents for communications, IT, and data all report to the president.

Board Chairman Hank Danos says the AGB is studying best practices and models at such universities as Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Rutgers. A report is expected by the next board meeting on Oct. 26.

At an August board retreat, representatives of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges presented three scenarios. One described “seizing the opportunity” presented by two open slots, the presence of a respected interim leader in Jenkins, and current fiscal pressures that make major change more “sellable,” to “create a single institution out of all member institutions.” That option appealed to the board, Danos says, and they have asked AGB to further study how to implement the idea and report back later this month.



“Without saying we're absolutely going to do this,” Danos says, “we're very committed to going down that path, to get all the information we need to make a good choice.”



In June and July, AGB consultants interviewed 75 LSU leaders, staffers and stakeholders. While not everyone was opposed to consolidation, almost no one was strongly in favor, and many worried the costs would be high—both in dollars and political opposition. The suggestion that LSU might jettison its campuses in Alexandria, Eunice and Shreveport was particularly unpopular, the consultants say. Danos says the board is committed to holding on to every campus.



Striking the right balance between cohesion and independence could be tricky. The level of autonomy allowed the professional schools, such as the Law Center, could become an accreditation issue. And there are concerns that a president/chancellor—or whatever the title—might show favoritism toward the main campus.



Some observers, such as LSU faculty senate President Kevin Cope, a frequent Jindal critic, worry that the governor is micromanaging the board, and that a single LSU leader selected by the current board would be beholden to, and perhaps controlled by, the administration.



“There is no evidence to suggest LSU is sufficiently mature,” Cope says, “to manage or govern such a gigantic university complex.” Other institutions that have centers for medicine, agriculture, and/or law organized under the main campus have institutional safeguards to preserve academic freedom, he says, which is “exactly the opposite of this move toward centralization [at LSU].”



Michael McLendon, a professor of higher education policy and leadership at Southern Methodist University, says it's one thing if board members simply share the general worldview of the politician who appointed them. But for that politician to give marching orders, or to impose a policy litmus test on potential appointees, in no way reflects best practices, he says.



Jindal's press office confirmed the governor believes the positions should be combined, but did not respond to questions about whether anyone in the administration has discussed the issue with board members.



The AGB consultants say the LSU System has “nothing approaching a comprehensive vision,” and the recent news that LSU ranks 67th among public universities according to U.S. News & World Report, regardless of the validity of the rankings, is a reminder of the work still to be done. Perhaps there's some value in change for the sake of change?



“I think this could have a very dynamic impact on the whole LSU System,” Jenkins says, “a revitalization, and re-energizing, and re-establishing the scope of our missions, but as a better, consolidated system working together.”



Danos says as the reorganization conversation moves along, leaders of the various units will be asked for their input. He and Jenkins suggest the basic outline of a new vision might be prepared before selecting a new leader, who would help fill in the blanks.



In the meantime, Jenkins is sitting tight.



“I'll never abandon LSU,” he says. “Everything's a risk in life. But I really would like to make a difference on this final tour.”



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