Riegel: Crumbling academic buildings? LSU has a lazy river!

A recent issue of the esteemed Chronicle of Higher Education  takes LSU to task for its new lazy river, a luxury lounge pool that is the marquis attraction of the University Recreation Center, which was recently overhauled at a cost of $85 million.

The article, entitled “The Lure of the River,” discusses the proliferation of lazy rivers and other lavish recreational amenities on public university campuses, and explains how such high-end attractions are being funded by ever-steeper student fees at a time when state and federal support for academic programs is dwindling.

It’s a perverse dynamic. As public universities are forced to increasingly rely on student revenues to make up for reductions in government funding, they’re feeling the heat to give students all the bells and whistles that will keep them happy—and enrolled on campus, paying their tuition and fees.

But who’s complaining? After all, the students at LSU voted several years ago to tax themselves an additional $135 over three years to help pay for this new playground, and no state general fund dollars are being spent on it, right? So, what’s the problem?

Or so the argument goes.

The university’s new 536-foot long lazy river is impressive, spelling out LSU as it winds through tropical foliage while music streams from outdoor speakers, and it isn’t the only show stopper at the refurbished rec center. The facility also boasts more than 40,000 square feet of cardio and weight room space—the size of a Neighborhood Walmart—and a 38-foot-high climbing wall, not to mention tennis courts, lap pools and all sorts of studios for group exercise.

It’s more than a little over the top, but then so are dozens of other rec centers around the country. In 2014, The New York Times described the trend as “the university recreation center arms race,” and reported that some 92 universities spent $1.7 billion in 2013 on capital projects at their student gyms.

LSU President F. King Alexander bristled when asked about The Chronicle article at a meeting of the Baton Rouge Rotary Club earlier this month. He’s well-respected in national higher ed policy circles for his advocacy of more affordable higher education, and was clearly rankled to be featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education, of all publications, for LSU’s lazy river.

“We took (the reporter) on a tour of the $110 million, state-of-the-art engineering building,” Alexander said. “I found it quite funny that he didn’t mention that in the article.”

But even if the article was, arguably, biased—and the tone was a bit condescending—the story was accurate. It was objectionable only in that it told an uncomfortable truth about what’s going on in public higher education, both at LSU and elsewhere around the country.

If we can figure out how to leverage a $135 increase in student fees into a $85 million rec center, why can’t we figure out how to address some of the capital needs of the aging academic buildings on campus, like the library?

At the Rotary meeting, Alexander offered a rational defense of the lazy river and rec center, much as he did in the article. Such amenities enable the university to remain competitive with its peers, he said, and help increase university retention and graduation rates.

He also said that the new and improved rec center keeps students active and rooted on campus, where they’re safer and, theoretically, engaged in healthy lifestyle activities like weight lifting, yoga and floating in an inner tube. He noted that since the facility reopened, student visits have doubled from 3,000 to 6,000 per day.

“I’d much rather have them there than drinking in Tigerland,” he said.

Alexander even suggested that enabling students to develop healthy lifestyle habits now will save on health care costs in the long run.

These rationalizations are defensible but only to an extent. They’re the same kind of pragmatic justifications that are given to explain away how private dollars from boosters—not state money—funded the more than $9 million buyout of football coach Les Miles’ contract in 2016, or how private donations went to build the new $10 million LSU Foundation building on Nicholson Drive, which, we are told, has to be appropriately impressive to encourage still more donors to write ever bigger checks.

These are also the same rationalization used to explain why LSU’s student athletes need to train in the best facilities in the nation—because it makes the university’s athletic programs more competitive and, therefore, better, which, in turn, enables athletics at LSU to be self-sustaining and even in a position to donate $13 million—about one-sixth the cost of the U-Rec renovation—back to academic programs, which it did last year.

I don’t buy it, whether it makes sense on paper or not. If we can figure out how to leverage a $135 increase in student fees into a $85 million rec center, why can’t we figure out how to address some of the capital needs of the aging academic buildings on campus, like the library? Why can’t we leverage the athletic department’s $13 million donation into scholarships and faculty pay raises? Why can’t we get our priorities straight?

The problem is bigger than just the lazy river at LSU. The problem is with what we, as a society, value and where, ultimately, we’re willing to spend our dollars as individuals and as a community.

It’s just that the problem here in Louisiana is more acute because there’s so much need, we’re so far behind and the stakes are, therefore, that much greater. 

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