Louisiana State University, located in my hometown of Baton Rouge, takes on a new president this week. And to say that he has a big job ahead of him is an understatement. Educationally, the state’s largest university is a mixed bag of quality and mediocrity, typical of many public universities. And there’s nothing like being in Tiger Stadium on a football Saturday night. But when it comes to national rankings, and raising money for its endowment, LSU continues to be at the low-end, even among schools in the Southeast Conference.
Dr. F. King Alexander, the new president comes from California State University in Long Beach, where he was popular, proactive, and controversial. When it came to funding for Long Beach, he made no bones about taking on the California legislature, and he did so with great success. However, he will quickly find that politicians in California are a piece of cake compared to the shenanigans he will have to deal with at the state capital in Baton Rouge. He will also discover that LSU, once the centerpiece of higher education throughout the South, is now fighting for relevant academic survival.
Huey Long was the best friend and supporter LSU ever had. The Virginia Quarterly Review called him the father of the modern LSU and said, “Huey stroked LSU as if he had been coddling a newborn pet elephant. During fiscal stringency in all other American states, Huey force-fed LSU with increasing appropriations.” The Kingfish made no secret of his long-term goals for the state’s flagship university. “LSU’s going to be the Harvard of the South,” he said.
LSU’s relevance as an educational pillar in the South continued into the 1950s. Prominent writers like Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren made the Baton Rouge campus a gathering place for major literary figures. The Southern Historical Association began publishing its Journal of Southern History as well as the highly respected Southern Review, all from LSU. And the LSU Press became the publishing beacon for serious fiction and non-fiction rivaled only by the University of North Carolina Press.
Outstanding young academicians in a variety of fields were attracted to Baton Rouge, and the music department produced grand opera accompanied by its own symphony orchestra under directors of international acclaim. The efflorescence of so much creative and academic talent drew praise for Louisiana nationwide. But that was then. What happened in recent years that caused Louisiana State University to drop its mantel of excellence, not just nationally, but right here in the Deep South?
In the 60s, education became the key to survival for other southern states that did not have the huge reservoirs of oil and gas that was bountiful in Louisiana. Who cared about having a college degree when an oil field worker with a tenth grade education could make as much or more than many professionals with graduate degrees? A college education became less relevant. And that’s when politics came into the mix.
With the economy running on auto pilot in Louisiana, and unemployment running way behind other southern states, the cry for keeping the flagship university strong fell on deaf ears. Rural legislators were more concerned about beefing up local colleges to LSU status, and even building unneeded new colleges and trade schools. And LSU became its own worst enemy by not aggressively making its case as to how critical a flagship university is to the economic well being and future of a state.
The leadership of LSU made three key mistakes that allowed it to fall into the fiscal abyss the university finds itself in today. First, it did not aggressively defend and promote its status as the flagship of all colleges in the state. I was around the state capitol as an elected official in various capacities through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. LSU was just one of the many education interests lobbying the legislature and the Governor. The University’s leadership did not consider LSU in a unique category. They simply did not make their case as key universities in other states have done. So they were not given any special attention or funding as the flagship, and by default, they got lost in the crowd.
The second mistake made by the LSU leadership was the failure to develop a solid endowment plan. LSU could well have the lowest endowment of any major college of its size in the country. Endowments are important. As much as 15 percent of the total amounts spent by major universities to cover costs can often come from its endowment. Income is built up over a number of years by actively encouraging alumni to make regular contributions to a university fund. Successful college endowments grow through investments and are a significant income source for any major university in the country. Not so at LSU.
As you would expect, the nation’s top-rated universities also have the highest endowments. Harvard leads the country with an endowment approaching $30 billion. A number of state universities have endowments that are significantly above $1 billion. The University of North Carolina has topped the $2.3 billion level gaining some 13 percent in one year on investments of new funds into the endowment. How about the Southeast Conference? Texas A&M is way ahead at $7 billion. Vanderbilt is solid at $3 billion. The University of Florida comes in strongly at almost $1.3 billion. The University of Alabama has an endowment approaching $1 billion. The University of Tennessee system is now at $954 million. Our football rivals up in Arkansas have an $800 million endowment. Any number of smaller southern schools are above this level. So where’s LSU? Just topping $650 million, and barely edging out Cooper Union and Macalester College. (I’ve never have heard of either one.)
US News and World Report recently released its annual university rankings. How did LSU do, not nationally, but just right here in the Southeast Conference? Vanderbilt was ranked 17, Florida was 44, Tulane was 51, Georgia-58, Alabama-77, Auburn-89, Tennessee-104, South Carolina-115, Kentucky-125, And finally, further down the list ranked at 134, tied with the University of Arkansas, was LSU.
Dr. Robert Berdahl, Chancellor of the University of California, raises concerns about the dangers to any state’s flagship university. “Once built, a state’s top university can easily be destroyed by political intrusion or financial neglect. But a strong, well financed flagship with solid leadership is vital to every state’s future.”
What the new LSU president will quickly find is that Louisiana is at a crossroads. If the state’s leadership does not work to promote and protect a high degree of excellence at LSU, the best and the brightest students will leave the state for greener pastures, or settle for a less challenging education that will limit their opportunities in the future. Dr. Alexander certainly has his work cut out for him. Geaux new Tiger.