Make Your Comments Heard – Act 619 and the Future of Louisiana Higher Ed

I will be on semi-hiatus until we enter the 2017 legislative session later this spring. However, I did want to write a short post about Act 619. Passed in the 2016 Regular Legislative Session, Act 619:

requests a comprehensive analysis of the postsecondary system that allows the Board of Regents and postsecondary education leaders to evaluate and streamline academic offerings, stimulate innovative research and respond to local/regional workforce needs and, in turn, better prioritize resources.

Draft recommendations were posted to the Board of Regents website last week. Unlike other recommendations requested (or in some cases demanded?) by our Legislature in recent memory, these are posted for public comment before being finalized. The public comment period ends February 6.

I won’t get into much of a discussion of these recommendations now, but I do plan on submitting comments within the public comment period. Some of the draft recommendations include:

  • consolidating and merging administrative functions within systems and administrative, academic, student services, purchasing, etc. functions and services among state institutions within the same market areas;
  • limiting research doctorate programs to LSU – research doctorates at statewide institutions (ULL, UNO, LaTech) would be approved only under “extraordinary circumstances”;
  • in alignment with Complete College America’s “15 to finish” initiative, requiring TOPS recipients to complete 30 credits a year to maintain eligibility;
  • fully funding need-based Go Grants;
  • requiring new university admits to complete any needed co-requisite developmental requirements in their first semester.

There are many more… this is just a short list.

The entire report can be viewed on the Board of Regents website. I am also attaching a spreadsheet summarizing the draft recommendations that was distributed to interested stakeholders.

Please – I invite anyone who cares about the future of Louisiana public higher education to take this opportunity to make their comments heard.

We won’t be heard if we don’t say anything.

Peace out.

It’s Not Just Bobby Jindal’s Higher Ed Legacy

I have mostly gone silent here. My last blog of any substance resonated with a few, because I think I captured the grief and resignation of many of us in Louisiana higher education. While I didn’t declare game over, I did indicate that we were playing a much different game, and a dangerous one at that. Higher education in Louisiana will never be the same. That wouldn’t be a bad thing if it was going to be for the better. But it’s not.

I am also a media junkie who prides myself in keeping up with the latest developments on higher education, the state budget, and politics in general. Like many I was stunned by the results of the presidential election. But in the last few weeks I’ve even stopped consuming most media. I’ve seen a few things in passing but there’s nothing new about the latest budget crisis, and nothing surprising about LSU saying that TOPS cuts are affecting enrollment. The annual Higher Education Begging for Legislative Alms has also started. I wouldn’t have needed to see these things in the media to be able to tell you that because if you know the disease, you’ll know the symptoms.

Other than a few retweets I’m mostly silent now on Twitter too.

Silent doesn’t mean disengaged.

Silent doesn’t mean I’ve stopped caring.

Silent doesn’t mean I’m not fighting, even if it is from deep within my soul now.

I am very still and listening. And watching. And processing all the input. Some from data. Some from observations. Some from insights. Some from my heart.

My heart is beating harder and more strangely than I recall in recent memory. Even more so than when I was actively fighting against the policies of the Jindal administration. Because taking on the battles is nothing new to me. It’s in my DNA. It’s what I do. I see a wrong, I fight it, and sometimes I even win and the wrong gets righted. End of story.

But this is something different.

This is the heart of a prophet who warned, and warned, and warned.

And few if any listened.

And the prophecies are coming true. But like all true and good prophets, I stayed behind to try and warn the stragglers who were left.

And now I’m stuck in the edifice I said was going to collapse. And still not leaving. I’m not technically trapped, but there are still a few people in here with me so I stay for them.

And so I sit, and watch, and listen. In silence. Because only in silence can you hear everything.

I hear the murmurs. I sense the unsaid fears.

I hear the cries of people being abused and berated and belittled to meet unreasonable goals, which are not really goals – they’re the benchmarks for survival of their departments, or institutions, or the whole state higher education system, but they are now slipping beyond everyone’s reach.

I see people I never thought would leave Louisiana, leave.

I see people I never thought would give up on higher education altogether, give up. People whose entire lives and identities were built around what we do for students, for our state, and for each other. For some they are actually giving up on themselves as a result.

I see the grabs for the scraps of what is left. They look like typical power grabs but they’re not. They are of the starving leveraging what little power they do have to make sure they stay fed at the expense of others, so that they can keep their positions and careers intact as long as they can until they get their tickets out themselves. It’s about survival.

I’m starting to see students give up on us.

In the silence, I watch and hear the cracks spreading across the foundation, and bits of debris raining down like sawdust. I warned about a multi-institutional collapse of historic proportions. It is happening.

In slow motion.

And I am in pain. So much pain. Because all I can do is watch, and listen, and feel.

And I don’t leave. I can’t. It’s not because I can’t get another job. It’s because of my heart.

I can’t fix this. I can barely bandage the wounds of the broken and bloodied. In fact, some even lash out at me and push that help away because they don’t trust that I’m not going to hurt them too. And I can’t blame them for that.

In fact, where I sit, I am witnessing in horror one person’s life crumble apart no thanks to the sickness that pervades Louisiana higher education. Not just job or career, but life – at the very essence of who this person is or at least has always believed that they are. This may be one of the most talented and knowledgeable people I’ve known from my 20 years of higher ed. This person is trying to escape but can’t, in part – no, mostly – because of the damage that was done here. It isn’t fair. I want to shoo the vultures away before there’s nothing left to pick at but the shell of someone who may soon be discarded like trash, but this person won’t let me risk myself to do that. I might still before it’s over, to hell with what this person says. Because what is life if we aren’t willing to risk it all for others?

What this person is going though is just a symptom. It is abuse, but it is more than that, far beyond that. This one person could be one of many in Louisiana higher education – the only difference is in degree and the speed of the decay. If you are silent and listen and watch, you probably see someone like this where you are as well. Maybe more than one. Maybe even many.

Higher education is about giving. We give people a chance at a better life. We give people the ability and tools to think and perceive and do and know. We perpetuate and grow our culture and body of knowledge. We give humanity.

But here it’s turning into something else.

This isn’t just Bobby Jindal’s legacy.

This is ours.

With every cut, with every refusal to fund this thing, with every legislator saying, “but my constituents won’t do this” and being dead on right because they will say no – we own this.

Higher education in Louisiana isn’t a heap of rubble yet. There are bright spots. There are places that will survive.

But survive… as what?

I watch.

I listen.

I feel.

I grieve.

Labor Day Ramblings

It’s Labor Day, and for most of us it’s simply a long weekend of cookouts with friends and family.

Where I’m originally from in upstate New York, it also marks the real end of summer and the beginning of the school year. I’ve gotten used to the cycle here in the south where school-fall bears no relationship to climatological fall. But in upstate New York, winter– along with the rainy cold seasons on either side of it–can last up to eight or nine miserable months of the year. As a result, summers are sacred and we live out every last moment of them. While our fall semesters get underway here in Louisiana, back home it’s the Saratoga track and summer trips to Lake George and the Adirondacks season. We could have cool snaps from mid-August on, but often the first wave of fall weather coincides with the end of the Labor Day weekend, and first frost usually within 2-3 weeks of that. The first day of school in my home school district this year is Thursday, September 8. Faculty report back for professional development tomorrow.

So while the US Labor Day is what it is because May 1 was just too controversial, it made perfect sense to me growing up not just because it marked the beginning of school, but the beginning of teacher-labor for the year. For most of my childhood and young adulthood, my dad was a labor negotiator for New York State United Teachers, or NYSUT, then and I think still now the strongest teacher’s union in the country.

Through kindergarten, my dad was an English teacher in one of the suburban districts around Utica, New York. When I was in first grade, he got a job for a private negotiating firm that contracted out to represent school boards. There are three things I remember about that job:

  • he was gone a lot because we still lived in Utica, and the job was 90 miles away in Albany. Plus he traveled all over upstate negotiating school board contracts with teachers union locals.
  • he wrote a book about labor negotiations. He was really proud of that book and talked about it a lot.
  • during show and tell at school I tried and failed to describe my dad’s new job to my class. English teacher would have been easy. But labor negotiator? I couldn’t even pronounce it, probably because I had never seen it in print. My parents taught me to read phonetically before I was in kindergarten and I could read the newspaper out loud as early as age 4 even though I didn’t understand 90% of what I was reading. So in class negotiator became “agotiator,” and my dad was like Robin Hood, which in retrospect probably didn’t impress my teacher much because at the time the side that he was paid to take stuff away from was hers. I do remember I got laughed at by my classmates, but since I always got laughed at it wasn’t a big deal.

We did end up moving to the Albany area a couple of years later. I don’t know how long it was after that–a year or less?–but then my dad got the job as a union rep for NYSUT, based in–guess where?–Utica. This is the job he ended up retiring from. As a former teacher himself it fit both his background and his belief system and by all reports he and the group of negotiators he worked with in his generation were quite good at what they did.

So, my dad was gone a lot again. Around this same time, my mom got a job at the New York Bell Company, or what we called Ma Bell (it’s Verizon today). This was before the AT&T split in the 1980s, though my mom worked there after the breakup until she retired, relatively young, in the late 80s. Yes, it was a union shop too.

You could probably define our prevailing family politics then as “unionist.” However, the Albany suburb we moved to was very Republican (which at that time was Rockefeller Republican, not the Southern Strategy endgame version prevalent today). One of my new schoolmate’s parents was the chair of the local Republican party, which is where I think I got that 1972 Nixon poster that ended up on my bedroom wall. My dad was appalled but he didn’t make me take it down. My best friend’s mom next door was an activist Republican and worked for the New York Speaker of the House. Everyone remembered her because she was an extremely attractive and outspoken redheaded divorcee. Yes, you could be a “liberated” woman at that time and Republican. In my eyes my best friend’s mom was the coolest mom ever. There was another reason why she was cooler than my also increasingly “liberated” mom who began subscribing to Ms. and MoJo magazines which I’ll get to next.

During that stage in my life labor unions and the competing politics around them were always there, but very much in the background. That’s because my mom was also a raging alcoholic, and my dad’s traveling so much for work pretty much blew the lid off any control she might have possibly had on her drinking. My mom also decided at that time she hated my dad. So my elementary school years were defined more by my mom’s out of control drinking and behavior. She would get home from work, drink, I would try to get to bed as early as possible before she got out of control, she would anyway, I’d wake up and hope like hell my dad would get home before she did something stupid. But when he did, she would lash out at him, so that usually wasn’t much better. She would also try to kill herself by taking a bunch of pills while he was gone, so his getting home in time to call the ambulance and save her life was a good thing.

So needless to say when the state union sent negotiators to other areas of the country for up to 2 weeks at a time, I don’t remember much about what my dad was doing in Lincoln, Nebraska or New Orleans (actually Jefferson Parish), other than that he left my brother and me alone with my raging drunk mom. Fortunately, she didn’t die and neither did we, but it was rough when he was gone. At least there weren’t any fights.

My dad came back from Nebraska with a map which ended up on my bedroom wall (I don’t remember if I still had Nixon up or not). According to my dad, Nebraska was flat and had bad food. But he loved New Orleans. He came back with pralines, individually wrapped in wax envelopes in a box. I ate every single last one of them. I was still finding and throwing away those wax envelopes for years afterward. He also came back with a recipe for oyster stew which is still a family Christmas tradition today – but really shared mostly with his second family with my stepmom, because my parents divorced around this same time.

For a year after they divorced it was sheer hell because my mother drank when she wasn’t working or passed out (I have no idea how she kept that job with Ma Bell. I know she went to work still drunk, and once she even totaled the car on the interstate on her way to work. Maybe its being a union shop had something to do with it?) but then she went to an outpatient rehab and became super active in Alcoholics Anonymous. While my elementary school years were defined by her alcoholism, my teens and young adulthood were shaped by her (and later my) involvement 12-step groups. She became somewhat of a local AA celebrity and when she died too-young (in her 50s) of cancer 20 years ago the funeral home where we had her memorial service couldn’t hold the crowd.

So back to Labor Day, and my parents’ involvement with labor unions. Before my mom retired, she was union steward in her office. Her union membership didn’t define her the way my dad’s job as a labor negotiator did him, but it was a source of pride. We didn’t make a big deal out of it or talk about unions all the time–it just was. But my generation was the one coming of age when Reagan was elected. There was a sense of fear among my parents’ generation when he was elected–that he would dismantle everything they had worked for–but not so much among mine. I actually vacillated back and forth between the moderate leftism of my parents, to outright progressivism when I dated a guy from Chappaqua who had rebelled against his corporatist parents and listened to WBAI, and then I rebelled against them all in my Rush Limbaugh/Ayn Rand phase, which ended a little over ten years ago after I moved with my now-husband to Louisiana, briefly joined and then escaped from a right-wing religious cult, and in my research into the cult learned that much of what poses as modern conservatism is a racially-motivated, pseudo-religious scam. So my politics now are pretty much what I started with – what I inherited from my parents, even though I mostly ignored them for the first forty years of my life.

I haven’t lived in upstate New York since I left soon after my mom died, so I don’t know what things are like now other than it being a rustier Rust Belt than the one I left. But I don’t see much of what my parents believed in. None of his kids–the ones still there and the ones who left–will be able to retire comfortably if at all, not even the oldest (me) who grew up to be a “state worker.” I’m afraid our retirement is going to be more along the lines of Work Until We Die. My dad is still a staunch unionist. My stepmom grew up Republican but she’s a retired teacher and watches MSNBC. But they aren’t stereotypical affluent “white northern Progressives” who read Daily Kos or get TFA jobs in New Orleans charters, but rather retired Rust Belt unionists. Just like upstate suburban Republicans of that generation were very different, so were upstate urban Democrats. We were all pretty pragmatic on both sides of the party divide, unlike downstate–or down south–where the ideological lines became much more clearly defined.

The state of labor this Labor Day, here in Louisiana pretty much sucks. Labor is a commodity, just like it was in the 1800s. And that’s not even getting to the most dehumanizing commodification of labor – enslavement – which still reverberates through our history today. African Americans are still enslaved in our prisons and trapped in the school-to-prison pipeline. Our HBCUs are under attack and I don’t know how much longer our public HBCUs can continue to exist. I’m glad to see that the Jefferson Parish AFT that my dad worked with all those years ago still exists, and that Jeff Parish has (so far) mostly resisted the divide-and-conquer, labor-killing charterization that is destroying public education as we know it, especially right next door in Orleans. Sadly, I identified my dad’s trip here with leaving me home alone with my drunken mom, and then returning with pralines and oyster stew rather to any work he did until I began working in Louisiana and realized what it all meant and why it was being dismantled. While my dad loves telling stories about his life and work, it’s been a long time since I’ve taken the time to really listen to them. My mom has been dead for two decades so whatever stories my brother and I don’t remember are long gone. Maybe it’s time to talk to my dad and get his stories before it’s too late.

A Requiem for Louisiana Public Higher Education

I could come up with all kinds of lame reasons why I haven’t posted anything in going on six months, since early in the Never Ending Legislative Session of 2016. As time went by, I justified it by telling myself that the best thing I could do was wait until it was all over and then attempt a postmortem, rather than blogging on the day by day political drama.

But the real reason is that I had been so caught up in the political higher ed drama for so long, and hearing the same things over and over and OVER that a few weeks in I realized I had nothing substantive to add that I hadn’t already said. I lost count of how many times our higher education leaders were dragged back to our legislature to once again explain to our elected officials why public higher ed is important and why it needs funding. I could pretty much recite from memory Joseph Rallo’s, F. King Alexander’s, Dan Reneau’s, Ray Belton’s and Monty Sullivan’s talking points. And not a word mattered at the end. Not a one.

Because the deal was already done.

In a new op-ed, recent LSU grad Justin DiCharia traced his journey from last year’s “idealism” as one of the organizers of student protests against higher education funding cuts to “realism” gained covering this year’s session as a Manship News Service journalist. (I should add that I think these student reporters did an outstanding job this year on par with the rest of our excellent legislative press corps.). DiCharia describes how when given a choice, like our legislators (supposedly) faced, between TOPS and the potential closure of our safety net hospitals or life-saving waivers to families of disabled children, he would now sacrifice TOPS. I could dissect the false dichotomy that has been constructed here (not by DiCharia, but by our legislators and their corporate handlers) but I won’t. It won’t make any difference. We’ve already decided what kind of state we are going to be and it isn’t one that values education, or health, or people.

We can’t have it all because we gave it all away, our revenue, resources, and the future of our state and children, and we aren’t taking it back. And there is no guarantee that next time safety net hospitals, waivers, or anything else that doesn’t contribute to the Bottom Line won’t be on the chopping block or pitted against something else we currently deem Too Important to Cut – For Now.

GRAD Act may be dead, but now we have the Elevate Louisiana plan, courtesy of 2014 legislation sponsored by Sen. Conrad Appel (R-Pick One, Merge or Close). DiCharia may not have realized it, but the legislative compromise he describes in his article is the most bluntly succinct description of the Elevate Louisiana plan and its ultimate aims I’ve read so far:

Combine this [TOPS cuts] with reducing Louisiana’s 15 colleges by closing or merging institutions with six-year graduation rates under a set percentage. Along with reducing the number of institutions, those which make the cut should be directed to consolidate programs across the state and eliminate duplicate specialized areas of study. Academic departments not producing more than, say, 40 majors a year need to go. In this time of continued fiscal crisis, the luxury of low-producing programs is expendable.

These measures would increase higher education funding and, in turn, stop universities from having to increase tuition rates.

The three systems (LSU, UL and Southern), along with the Legislature, would investigate how to cut and consolidate the state higher education system. One of the indicators would be graduation rates.

I’m afraid it won’t be long before we see one or two of our HBCUs close, merge, or privatize–or at the very least, before we see new proposals to do so. They are, after all, near or on the bottom of the graduation rate list according to DiCharia’s article. It bears mentioning that traditional IPEDS graduation rates of freshmen entering college upon high school graduation are increasingly meaningless since they exclude huge swaths of students including transfer, returning and adult students, as well as students who take more than six years to graduate. These are also more likely to be low income students or students of color – which penalizes institutions which serve more of these students. Also, Grambling University is poised to lose another $1M in funding this year. It’s not like other universities like UNO or Southeastern are in any great shape either (they are also losing $1M and $1.4M respectively – and the UL System was hit hard in general), but I have no idea how Grambling can absorb a cut of this magnitude unless their alumni step in financially and otherwise to save the university. Conscious or not, this is egregious fiscal and institutional racism at work in my opinion.

While I very much believe in community colleges and workforce training in principle–I am a product of a community college myself–and that not all students can or should go to four-year universities, the growing workforce rhetoric I’m hearing out of Baton Rouge makes me very afraid that we’ve decided that four-year universities will no longer be a viable option for increasing numbers of our students, not even as transfers, and that we will start seeing even more African-Americans and other students of color pushed toward getting low to medium credit workforce credentials while white and affluent students will go to a shrinking number of universities offering a shrinking number of “high demand” programs that will be “state” in name only.

We may look like we are still alive, or in better shape than Illinois where institutions are closing. But we aren’t, or at least not for long. Some of us have terminal cancer. Some of us have limbs and hearts and brains that are being replaced with bionics. So still technically alive, but not really human. Not really public higher education.

This is the “new reality,” according to both DiCharia and the Board of Regents. The money isn’t going to be there for Louisiana higher education. “It serves no useful purpose for the Board of Regents to wish for better days and a return to appropriation levels of the past,” says the statement approved in the April 2016 board meeting. $700 million is all we have to work with, folks. Deal. It might be branded “Elevate Louisiana!” but it sure sounds like “Acquiesce Louisiana” to me.

I could say that we all lose, but we won’t, or at least not equally. People with money and privilege sure won’t. White people for the most part won’t. People like me – professionals and faculty in our higher education institutions, will continue to leave just as we have been for several years now. Students and their families who have the means or grades or ability will either pay the extra tuition, get extra scholarships, or leave for other states where they’ll get a better deal. I think in the short term students who were going to LSU or UL Lafayette will stay closer to home because of the TOPS cuts, so I’m expecting enrollment increases at UNO this year for example, but in the longer term our neighboring states are going to continue their aggressive and increasingly successful recruitment of Louisiana students, and enrollments will continue to progressively decline. We enroll 10,000 fewer college students now than we did at the beginning of Bobby Jindal’s term, even though high school graduation and TOPS college core completion rates continue to climb.

I’m not sure if this is my last blog post or not. There’s so much more to say, about race, inequality, the role of higher education in both, especially now after the events of the last couple of weeks. Last year I was a bit discouraged that the students who were protesting really didn’t know how to protest. Well, some obviously do now.

I actually have hope for the future, and at my advancing age I am still a proud idealist, but I may not see what I hope for, and I may not be part of it. But at least I can say I raged against the machine a little. A few more students were allowed into college the last couple years than before – so hopefully I’ve been part of the solution more than part of the problem. But I’m afraid that Louisiana public higher education, as we knew it, is pretty much over.




Even If Athletics Is A Problem, It’s Not THE Problem

I’m going to offer some observations about recent allegations that Louisiana’s universities are pumping too much money into athletics while academics have suffered–and that they are wasting tax and student money as we face the possible closure of Louisiana’s higher education institutions.

And some people aren’t going to like what I have to say.

First, I don’t dispute either the facts or the seriousness uncovered by Lee Zurik’s investigation here and here. If true, he may well have uncovered some potential NCAA violations in my opinion.

Nor will I dispute Bob Mann’s blogs chronicling how LSU’s academic buildings are crumbling while athletics has the best of the best.

I’ve already commented about the Advocate’s piece on athletic funding as part of their higher ed series.

But I think it is possible to say, again, without disputing either what others have uncovered or the gravity of what they’ve uncovered, that there are other overarching concerns that both help explain why this may be happening and why this obscures the real issue–that Louisiana higher education neither caused our current budget crisis, nor can solve the crisis. And that includes athletics.

First, due to the Jindal administration’s policies, revenue has become increasingly dependent upon enrollment. And not only headcount enrollment (or what admissions folks colloquially call “butts in seats”) but due to performance based funding, enrollment of freshman students who are most likely to successfully graduate from their institutions in less than 6 years. You know those graduation rates that legislators and others are saying are too low? They are based on only one type of student–first time freshmen, almost exclusively new high school graduates, who remain continuously enrolled and graduate in six years or less (or three years at two-year institutions). GRAD Act was a Trojan horse that on the surface looked like it would increase these graduation rates by ensuring student success. And the vast majority of people who supported GRAD Act supported it for exactly this reason.

But as I discovered, GRAD Act rigged the game. What it really did was similar to what some institutions, including K-12 charter schools are accused of doing–cherry pick students who are most likely to increase these numbers. Our universities didn’t even have to intentionally cherry pick either–the mandated admission criteria did that for them. Those criteria that were partially relaxed last year ensured that most of our state’s high school graduates would no longer be eligible for university admission–and that it would educationally disenfranchise our African American students, since only 15% of African American high school graduates qualified for university admission under the GRAD Act linked published standards.  In fact, not all TOPS eligible students qualified for university admission under these criteria! It forced our institutions–mostly universities in this case–to battle for a market that was comprised of almost exclusively LSU-eligible students.

And what is one sure way to recruit high school seniors who can go to LSU or to any other university in our state?

Field successful sports programs, which don’t just attract athletes but students in general. Sports drive overall enrollment.

And while LSU is (now, thanks to budget cuts) at the bottom of the pack when it comes to flagship academic funding,  it is one of only seven athletics programs in the entire country that is self-supporting. It is an elite among elites. More so than any other school in the SEC, and yes, including Alabama.

The rest of our state universities should not be competing with LSU. But thanks to the Jindal administration’s policies, now they do.

The only university in the state who has come even close to competing with LSU in general student recruitment is the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, which is now the second largest university in the state and cracked the 19,000 student barrier this year. The increased visibility and success of its athletics programs can claim some of the credit. The Ragin’ Cajuns football team is a lot better than it used to be, but it’s still not going to beat LSU in Tiger Stadium. However, the Ragin’ Cajuns are going toe to toe with them on the baseball and softball diamonds, and they now have decent basketball teams, too. Up until this year when they were sanctioned by the NCAA, they had been racking up victory after victory in athletics and getting more and more TV time before more and more prospective students.

And as Zurik’s investigation showed, UL Lafayette spends more than any other athletics program in the state by far except LSU. The Ragin’ Cajun Athletic Foundation is modeled after the Tiger Athletic Foundation. When your model is the best of the elite funding models, you are going to be successful. According to USA Today, donations to UL Lafayette’s athletics almost doubled ($3 million increase) between 2013 and 2014 while university subsidies decreased by $2 million. So the recent increase in spending came from donors, not taxpayers.

Louisiana Tech is holding its own as well. But outside of these three institutions (and theoretically UNO, although it is losing the recruitment battle to both LSU and UL Lafayette so I won’t include them here), what about the rest of our universities? Should they be competing directly with LSU, or even with UL Lafayette or LaTech? Should they be expected to?

Let’s look at the mission statements of two of the smaller universities in Zurik’s report: McNeese State and Northwestern State.

McNeese’s mission is explicitly as a teaching institution serving the Lake Charles region:

McNeese State University is primarily a teaching institution whose mission is successful education of the undergraduate and graduate students and services to the employers and communities in the southwest Louisiana region…

McNeese is responsible for serving:

  • Residents of southwest Louisiana who have completed high school and are seeking either a college degree or continuing professional education;
  • Two-year college transfer students, particularly those from Sowela Technical Community College;
  • Employers in the region, both public and private, school districts, health care providers, local governments, and private businesses;
  • Economic development interests and regional entrepreneurs; and
  • The area community, by providing a broad range of academic and cultural activities and public events.

Northwestern’s is less explicit in its geographic focus on a specific service area, but it too is a teaching institution serving its region:

Northwestern State University is a responsive, student-oriented institution that is committed to the creation, dissemination, and acquisition of knowledge through teaching, research, and service. The University maintains as its highest priority excellence in teaching in graduate and undergraduate programs. Northwestern State University will prepare its students to become productive members of society and will promote economic development and improvements in the quality of life of the citizens in its region.

Now there is nothing wrong with either school having athletic programs. But is it their mission to compete with LSU or even with mid-major schools like UL Lafayette or LaTech? No. These are regional, teaching universities whose missions are to serve their regions. However, in an environment where institutions are forced to compete with one another for both resources and students–not because they ARE scarce but because they have been MADE scarce, it’s no wonder that schools spend more on athletics… because they help them recruit more students.

And as I said above, even if everything in Zurik’s reporting is substantiated–and I am not questioning either his reporting or his facts here–it clouds the real issue.

What is our state’s budget hole? THREE BILLION DOLLARS.

So while the academic in me sympathizes fully with the Northwestern professor who lost her job due to cutbacks while athletics flourished, and I don’t condone what happened, this likely would not have happened in the first place if higher education budgets had not been cut 13 times in 8 years, forcing some of our institutions to go from being non-players in the athletics arms race to bit players in order to recruit a decreasing pool of eligible students and survive. (Note I said eligible students. More and more students are there. We just decided more and more were no longer eligible.) The amounts cited in Zurik’s article pale in comparison to the cuts higher education has taken and to the massive crater of a budget deficit we are in.

Here is the real crime.

We have found where most of the $3 billion went.

Over $1 billion from uncollected horizontal drilling revenue.

Over $1 billion in other previously unreported corporate tax breaks.

And much of the rest in borrowing tricks that put the state further in debt as well as shady DHH budgeting that simply kicked the deficit can up the road into the Edwards administration.

Again, I am not at all condoning or minimizing what Zurik found in his reporting… but it is chump change when comparing it to what Jindal did.

Because focusing on college athletic funding obscures the real problem. That the budget situation is not higher education’s fault. In fact, Jindal’s rigged game may be the real reason why some universities may be tempted to break the rules. Because it’s become all about survival.

Senator Appel’s Fishing Expedition Gone Awry

Evident in the Louisiana Legislature’s questioning of higher education during this special session is their outrage (at least among several Republican members) over two things:

  1. That higher education had the gall to let the public know that the 13th cut in 8 years in order to help fill a $3 billion dollar hole now threaten the third and fourth rails of Louisiana politics: TOPS and LSU football (sorry, these are public funds and public institutions so the public has the right to know);
  2. That higher education hasn’t yet closed, merged or privatized institutions after all these cuts.

Leading this charge is Sen. Conrad Appel III (R-Metairie), chair of the Senate Education committee. In his latest shot, in a letter sent to the Board of Regents on January 31–which by sheer coincidence didn’t get picked up by the Advocate until two days after the special session commenced and several days after the TOPS Crisis got legislators’ phones-a-ringing–he accused Higher Education Commissioner Joseph Rallo and the Board of Regents of “circling the wagons” and resisting change.

The document that elicited this response was the Regents’ response to Appel’s own Senate Resolution 132 from the 2015 legislative session, in which it was charged to “re-examine the state’s public postsecondary delivery system” in order to “make optimal use of resources.” SR 132 appeared on the surface to ask Regents to re-examine and revise the 2011 Master Plan, which is a ten-year plan that was last revised in 2012. Anyone who has been involved in master planning knows that they are meant to be long-range visionary plans rather than short-term goals and objectives that change frequently. But embedded in SR 132 was a reminder to Regents of its constitutional responsibilities, which outlined the true purpose of the resolution, and what Sen. Appel was expecting to see in its response–revisions to the Master Plan, along with a proposal to merge/close institutions. He first charged Regents to “look beyond traditional parochial considerations,” and quoted the Regents’ constitutional duties, including revising and eliminating degree programs, studying the feasilbility of merging and transferring institutions, and making “timely” revisions to the master plan. It concludes by insinuating that the Board of Regents’ primary constitutional responsibility is to restructure public higher education:

WHEREAS, it is incumbent upon the Board of Regents to exercise its constitutional responsibility and re-examine the state’s public postsecondary education delivery system from a statewide perspective and determine the best manner in which to provide a coordinated statewide… delivery system that provides for the proper role, scope, and mission of each…institution and its placement within the… structure, focuses resources, and establishes an optimal balance of technical colleges, two-year and four-year institutions, and courses of study (emphasis mine).

In other words, revise that Master Plan now, even though you’re only 3 years into a 10-year plan, and make sure you include a plan to merge or close some universities.

A fishing expedition from the same legislator who carried Bobby Jindal’s ill-fated UNO/SUNO merger plan, and who based on his questioning over the last three days, seems still visibly upset that no university mergers happened during the eight years of hacking and slashing higher ed took during the Jindal administration.

This is also the same legislator who, in helping to launch Jump Start, said we were going from a 60%/40% four-year to two-year split (which is the national average) to 40%/60%–which, if true, would be far below other states. He also claimed that we have been pushing “college” too much in this state to students who don’t want to go to college.

While I support more robust career and technical education as well as our community colleges in general–which according to Dr. Monty Sullivan do not compete directly with our universities–Sen. Appel’s numbers seem more reflective of a desire to close or merge universities and send students to (cheaper) community colleges. As I’ve reported here before, Louisiana’s four-year/two-year split is actually 65%/35%, despite the fact that more students are graduating with the college-prep core curriculum. And according to the 2015 ACT State Profile Report, 71% of the 2015 high school graduating class aspire to a bachelor’s degree or higher. This means that more students aspire to a four-year degree than are currently going to our four-year universities. I’ve written a lot on why so I won’t go into that here… but poke around my four-part series on GRAD Act if you are interested.

Full disclosure–I support community colleges. I have worked in the LCTCS system. I am a product of a community college.

The Board of Regents complied with the resolution but not apparently with Sen. Appel’s expectations. Their response was, in essence, OK, we are revisiting the Master Plan like you asked us to, convened a Stakeholder Collaborative to ensure that it is in alignment with state workforce and economic development needs, and it will be considered for approval by the complete Board this spring. We can assume that the new Master Plan will include the “five bold plans” Regents Chair Richard Lipsey talked about in his legislative testimony, and perhaps they will involve reorganizing Louisiana public higher education.

But that wasn’t good enough for Sen. Appel. He went on another fishing expedition for the mergers Bobby Jindal didn’t get, and still didn’t get them. Study after study have NOT supported Louisiana university mergers. Georgia’s mergers (which came up in testimony as a great and wonderful example of reorganizing higher education) did not save money. Connecticut’s community college and university mergers did not save money. New Jersey’s mergers did not save money. Mergers in general in fact tend to cost money.

I’m not saying that mergers are bad or that our higher education system is perfect and wouldn’t benefit from them. Mergers between similar institutions with similar missions and student populations can work. But do them because they are the right thing to do to improve education and student outcomes, not because they will save money. And certainly don’t do it under the budget gun, because who will lose? Students.

Postscript: Higher Education Commissioner Rallo’s track record prior to coming to Louisiana appears to be one of a higher education reformer who is quite familiar with campus reorganizations–further evidence that Sen. Appel’s chastisement of him as supporting the status quo is off mark. Here’s an article from 2011 about Angelo State University’s reorganization under Dr. Rallo’s leadership in the face of Texas’s higher ed budget cuts while he was their chancellor. Note that many if not most of our institutions have been similarly reorganized to the tune of hundreds of programs closed or discontinued, and 5,0oo fewer employees on our payrolls.


Happy First Birthday to LA Higher Ed Confessions

This past week (actually, on the date of my last blog post), marked one year since I started this blog.

And other than who is in the Governor’s Mansion, things haven’t changed a whole lot. My life has changed some, but not as much as I was concerned it might a year ago because I haven’t gotten fired or laid off (yet) and I’m still very much in the thick of the sometimes soap opera, but more often lately, tragedy that is Louisiana higher education.

In fact, what we saw last legislative session–the end result of the Jindal administration–I had originally thought would be happening now once he was gone.

But now is the real end game. We are playing a reverse Robin Hood with our state’s resources, robbing from the poor, indigent, sick and students and giving it to corporations. Ayn Rand would be proud not just because of that but because we’ve also killed what she called altruism but in an earlier time was called the common good (here’s a Randian definition calling common good bad if you’re interested). And Jindal is gone, away from the shrapnel, and it’s blasting in the face of our current governor. People are comparing him to Trump (really?) and calling Jay Dardenne–who in my opinion is making good in his position as Commissioner of Administration on a Twitter promise to be a “present governor” despite losing the election–to  a turncoat.

But we have no more tricks, no more one time money, a state rainy day fund that only has enough to rain a drop or two in the hole we’re in, and some of our institutions hammered over the last eight years left with little to no reserves either. Only the strongest may survive but that’s relative because the strongest is a starving tiger.

We bought some time in the last session but that’s all we bought. Time. Not a solution. We simply bought that time from now and now the debt is due with interest. The Board of Regents hasn’t posted official numbers yet but unofficially enrollment was up at many of our institutions this fall thanks to the change in our admission criteria (I’ve heard people complain since that this was simply a way to increase revenue but the real reason why I waged that battle against the old admission criteria is because it was a civil rights issue, not a revenue issue), but when you end up giving more back to the state than you receive, then all it means is that you are simply taking more from more students and bleeding it back to the state, which in turn is bleeding it back to corporations in the form of tax breaks and rebates.

And given that our state is in a recession, we can’t say that this strategy has worked. Ayn Rand was wrong and Bobby Jindal was wrong. The intent may have been to diversify our economy but really all it did was cheapen it.

And now we are on the verge of shutting down the majority of our colleges and universities, running off our so-called private “partners” in health care, and letting people die and rot. While health care has the most immediate impact on people’s lives, I strongly believe that higher education is a life and death proposition too especially in our poor state, and the data back me up–because the “school to prison pipeline” is real.

And this is close to an event horizon from which there will be no return. To the cheers of a state that loves them some Trump.

One of the nice things about being an anonymous blogger is that I can say these things truthfully without worrying about the impact on my institution or the people we serve. I know that campus presidents and administrators have to put on the happy face and say it will be ok, to reassure their students, faculty, and staff. Enough people I know well have understandably bailed either on this state or on higher education altogether–including some of my mentors, former supervisors, peers, and students I’ve recruited or mentored myself–that I understand why we need to encourage who’s left to stay. Sometimes it’s frustrating to hear but I understand the game as I’ve played it having spent most of my higher ed career in recruitment and enrollment management. But now that I’m kind of paid to be a pessimist–seek out and find the problems and worst case scenarios, and help my institution either get out of them or better yet, avoid them altogether, I don’t feel as much like I’m living a double life professionally. But it still hurts to be a prophet of sorts. I don’t like being right. And I remain anonymous because I need to be an insider as long as possible and report back what I see truthfully and often painfully. I see myself here as supporting all our higher education institutions, not just the school or system in which I work, because I do this for our students and our state as a whole who needs us all, from LSU down to the most remote college campus.

Yesterday afternoon,  a couple of people I work with stopped by my office telling me to get some rest this weekend because it’s about to get really crazy, really fast. Yeah, no $&*!.

But heck, at least my experience in higher education is that there really is no rest. This is a calling for me, not just a job or even a career. But I do need strength to keep going. Sometimes that comes from what little downtime I allow myself, but more often for me it comes from reflection, focus, and resolve. Reminders of why I do what I do.

Like from the student working as a cashier I met the other night, who was in tears, terrified of losing her TOPS. Even though TOPS has been under fire for helping wealthy students who don’t really need it–and I know a lot of otherwise successful, high GPA students who didn’t get TOPS because they weren’t also blessed with a high enough ACT score–I also know plenty of students who wouldn’t be able to afford to go to school if it weren’t for TOPS. While it’s true that not everyone needs it, and that we should invest far more in need-based GO Grants instead, the students who do need it, need it. On average, two-thirds of our state’s public higher ed students are on some form of financial aid according to IPEDS–which is sadly far below the national average. So I’m sure that cashier wasn’t working for the sheer love of cashiering. She’s working to help pay for school expenses or fees her school was forced to impose to stay open, on top of TOPS.

And now we are on the verge of telling that girl, in effect, that her future is not as a college graduate, but as a college drop-out cashier.

One of Bobby Jindal’s jobs of the future.

Because people have been brainwashed into thinking that paying any taxes at all is a horrible thing and just let all our colleges and universities close. Yes, I have heard that in the last couple of days. I almost have no response because there will be no changing their minds. Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they say.

So happy birthday, blog. The happiest birthday will be when our state finally appreciates, values, and prioritizes higher education.

But I don’t see that birthday happening anytime soon.

I hope I’m not right in that.