State budget shortfall brings more uncertainty to LSU students, faculty

    While Gov. John Bel Edwards is expected to call lawmakers into a special session next month to balance a $313 million deficit in the current fiscal year, LSU officials are already looking to next fiscal year—which begins July 1—and the effect that more budget cuts and belt tightening could have on the popular TOPS program, university enrollment and faculty recruitment.

    “The big question mark for us is TOPS,” says LSU President F. King Alexander. “What does it mean next fall? I think there are a lot of question marks.”

    Earlier this month, LSU officials said they were heartened that preliminary enrollment numbers for the spring semester at the Baton Rouge campus are virtually unchanged from the fall’s 31,000, even though the TOPS program is only funded at 40%.

    But they’re bracing for the impact that more cuts and expected changes to the tuition program will have on students and faculty, who will begin planning for the fall semester in just a few months.

    Since 2010, nearly 300 faculty members have left the university’s seven campuses. During the 2015-2016 academic year alone, the flagship campus lost 40 professors, including 27 assistant professors. Alexander says he is not aware of any wholesale exodus underway during the current academic year, though it’s still early in the semester. But the chronic budget cuts and lack of certainty make it hard to recruit new faculty.

    “We’re worried about losing our best faculty,” he says. “We’ve built such good results and our faculty and staff have carried us through, and we’re still setting records and our starting salaries are still strong, so we’ve gotten great results. The one fear is how long can we keep doing that in an environment where we’ve taken 16 cuts in nine years?”

    Since 2009, state general fund direct appropriations to LSU declined by $141 million, more than 53%. Last year, Gov. John Bel Edwards’ budget, when initially proposed, would have cut LSU’s funding by more than 30%. By the time lawmakers had adjourned their second special session three months later, approving $1.2 billion in new taxes in the process, the cuts were down to just 0.5%.

    —Stephanie Riegel

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