Priorities?

A recent news story tells us all we need to know (and then some) about what really matters in American higher education. Here’s how the story begins:

Proving it’s not only small, private, liberal-arts colleges that are susceptible to financial distress, Louisiana State University (LSU) announced that it’s in the midst of drawing up a financial exigency plan.

Bloomberg News, which reported the development, called the plan “equivalent to a college bankruptcy” and noted that it would let LSU fire tenured faculty and restructure its finances.

The Baton Rouge-based university with over 30,000 students is drafting the plan, in part, because the most recently proposed budgetary cuts by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal threaten to severely impact the higher-education system in the state. The governor’s plans would cut the budgets for Louisiana’s colleges and universities to the tune of 82%, according to Bloomberg.

The president and chancellor of LSU, F. King Alexander, stressed the bankruptcy plan was essential since there has been little movement in the state’s legislature to make updates to the budget.

“We don’t say that to scare people,” Alexander was quoted as saying in The Times-Picayune. “Basically, it is how we are going to survive.”

(Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/lsu-is-drafting-a-financial-exigency-plan-2015-4#ixzz3YKJHEFxy)

The economic struggles of small liberal arts colleges are well-known, but this is the first news regarding the financial struggles of a major university and the obvious fact that large universities have so much more fat to trim than do small colleges hardly needs to be mentioned. However, the news that L.S.U. may have to make draconian cut-backs, including the firing of tenured faculty, is a shocker. But it should be read in the context of several salient facts: Les Miles, the L.S.U. football coach makes $4.3 million a year and has 17 assistant coaches whose salaries are almost certainly higher than the tenured faculty who might be dismissed. In addition, like all other major Colleges, L.S.U. is allowed 85 “full-ride” athletic “scholarships.” Assuming that all of these are out-of-state students (which is a fair assumption) this amounts to $325,397.00 per year — just for football.

The “restructuring” may be a bluff on the part of the president, of course, to bring the legislature to heel. But a much bigger bluff would be the threat to drop L.S.U. football — or any of the sixteen sports teams. Now that would get their attention! But, come to think of it, the bluff almost certainly wouldn’t work: the legislators know that L.S.U. would never touch the athletic teams! Tenured faculty for sure, but don’t touch the coaches or the athletics program. They know what really matters in major American colleges and universities — and it’s not education.

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11 thoughts on “Priorities?

  1. Oh good grief! Re: “Les Miles, the L.S.U. football coach makes $4.3 million a year ”

    That’s a huge no-brainer of a solution.. cut what’s not necessary for a proper education and work up from there… Why are people so blind?

  2. Hugh, many universities are seeing the problems as well with restricted funding. When you have state budgets being reduced along with trickle down tax cuts, the ax hits more places. When the “rat in the snake” demographic of children of baby boomers graduates coupled with people not being able to afford college, the incoming freshmen are fewer. Plus, you have heavy benefits budgets that need to be pared. All of this has been a perfect storm that will impact all higher ed, unless they prepared for it. They greater threats are to less endowed liberal arts colleges and traditionally African-American universities, but even the big dogs are feeling more fleas. BTG

    • One of the major factors is the rise in tuition and board coupled with the availability of on-line degrees — which are a bit of a joke. But those courses are cheap and promise the students the same benefits as an on-campus experience.

  3. This is rotten stuff, another sign of our misplaced priorities. What makes it worse, I think, in the LSU case is that none of the football program’s money comes from the state government — it’s all from outside sources (tickets, TV revenue, donor funding, NCAA licensing, etc.). So cutting the program, while making a statement, wouldn’t free any money to save academic programs or faculty. (A couple of links: http://businessofcollegesports.com/2011/06/16/self-sustaining-athletic-departments-more-than-what-meets-the-eye/ and http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052970203513604577143250385056524)

    But even if it is not a direct connection, of course, it’s frustrating and maddening. Because it says that we as a culture prefer to pay out-of-pocket to enrich people like the coach, Les Miles, and others associated with the program. And we — or rather the fans of LSU — would rather pay out-of-pocket for entertainment than to help improve the academic situation of their state university.

    (People and corporations certainly could give money to academic programs at the same level and with the same fervor they do to the football program, but we all know that’s very unlikely to happen. Far more fun to get drunk on Saturday with our LSU Tigers than to make sure there are quality teachers or engineers coming out of Baton Rouge.)

    Yet, though the dollars are not specifically connected, as we well know, the more subtle and indirect connections are proving more and more real and very damaging: schools with big-budget sports programs are spending less and less per-student now on academics, and academic performance suffers at about the rate sports success improves. So, the money disparity bleeds to the mindset, which is a serious, tangible problem.

    • Regardless of the source of funding for athletics, there is nothing stopping them from giving some of their winnings from bowl games, etc. to the university general fund. It has been done. And cuts in athletics would send the right sort of signals.

  4. Great piece, Hugh and I completely agree with your conclusions. Its time to make college sports professional, and made to pay its own way.

    BTW another angle that is getting press attention to a smaller degree is Jindal’s reliance on the Repubs Trickle Down Economics for his state. He has radically cut taxes to the top levels, and of course does not have Obamacare. As Kansas and Wisconsin are also experiencing, this is a receipe for disaster. I think Jindal’s threat to LSU is a red herring, and the cuts won’t be as severe. But as you know, there are educational cuts coming, and putting sports programs on the block would be the right thing to do.

    • I don’t doubt that something will be worked out. At this point is is a matter of posturing, punch and counter-punch. But the fact that LSU would announce possible cuts of tenured faculty and make no mention whatever of possible cuts in athletics tells us a great deal. Tenure has been abused and protects many a dud, but it also protects those who speak out against the follies and corruption of the administrations they have to work with. I know from experience.

      • I believe the discussion over tenure is long overdue. But the LSU situation is way beyond that, and really calls out what the priorities are for the school(s), education or sports.

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