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Pursue rational, not political, higher education solutions

Maybe drastic cuts will come to higher education in Louisiana, maybe not. But in contrast to this uncertainty, one sure thing is that policy-makers inside and outside of higher education aren’t doing the optimal things to deal with this situation.

Faced with a projected cut of around $300 million for fiscal year 2011-12 from loss of federal funds, this deficit might grow larger if the state cannot recover revenues from the Pres. Barack Obama’s Administration to shut down stealthily and needlessly deepwater offshore drilling. This has led higher education system administrators to search for deep cuts in their universities; for example, the Louisiana State University System has asked each campus to find a way to operate on budgets only 77 percent of what they are today (this is somewhat of a hypothetical exercise because cuts would not have to be uniform if they come; some campuses could deal with larger percentages but others with smaller ones).

Drastic measures such as these which include systems declaring exigency (essentially bankruptcy) which would allow mass firings even of tenured faculty members and dramatic reductions in courses offered, however, are only tenuously necessary. Loudly and public these institutions have trumpeted the financial reviews spawned by the recognition of predicted revenue shortfall partly to scare elected policy-makers partly as political ploys: the old trick of trying to prevent an action by forwarding the most extreme alternative as the solution, when other less disruptive amelioration exists.

For examples, months ago I offered seven low-impact acts that could be undertaken by either or both of elected policy-makers and those in the university systems which could promise substantial savings. Briefly, they are:

1. Strategically downgrade or eliminate institutions (which does not mean picking the two smallest baccalaureate schools in the LSU System and closing them; it means dealing with situations like why are there two such schools a mile apart from each other in New Orleans, and five miles apart between Ruston and Grambling and another 30 miles away, and 10 miles apart in Baton Rouge, and a campus located 60 miles south of New Orleans and 100 miles south of Baton Rouge, and another located 50 miles north of New Orleans and 50 miles east of Baton Rouge)
2. Steer less capable students to community colleges to increase baccalaureate-and-above institutions’ resource usage efficiency
3. Make Taylor Opportunity Program Scholarships rewarded more on merit and less on an entitlement basis, to reduce cost burdens on universities
4. Get the distractive charity hospital system out of the LSU System
5. Make faculty teaching loads reflective of the primary goal of teaching
6. Eliminate low priority disciplines and programs that are little more than concessions to the vanity of certain faculty members
7. Reduce bureaucracy created by too much middle-management and redundant higher education governing agencies

On those that higher education could have implemented on its own, hardly anything has been done. On those which the governor and Legislature must accomplish, virtually nothing was done during this recently concluded session. While the latter therefore largely is lost in time for 2011, the former set remains active alterations that could be done instead of blunter hacking away as are the proposed actions currently endorsed by the systems. If done this way, major pruning into essential instructional activities would not have to be pursued and can be done where rational choices rather than political ones get made.

One hopes this more sensible approach is taken eschewing the headline-grabbing, apocalyptic scenarios coming concerning elimination of vital functions from higher education designed to scare up revenues to it. The reality is that the fat that should be cut is there: in per capita dollar terms, Louisiana in the top ten among states in spending on higher education, yet has some of the lowest graduation rates and, frankly, in the aggregate, lower quality education; it ranks in the top 10 states in terms of number of institutions (75) yet is about midway both in terms of college-age population and total population (which leads to one of the lowest ratios of people-to-institutions); and it already is in the upper two-thirds of tuition rates being charged.

The fat exists as outlined above; only to this point is the will to deal with it rationally and not politically not in existence. This attitude should be the primary solution to higher education money woes going forward.


Anonymous said...

LOL at #1.

Translation, close down schools, just don't close down my school.

Anonymous said...

How many students are in your largest clsss? What is the average class size you have taught in the last 5 years? How many classess do you teach? Do you teach them online or face to face? Last of all, who in the entire LSU system is more vane than you?

Mr. Harris Plutocrat said...

Good points. God forbid our ultra-conservative professor would have to make any sacrifice himself. Typical neoconservative garbage. "Everyone else should have to pay for my subsidies, but I should never have to pinch pennies in a crisis." Just like rabid neoconservative farmers demanding an end to all subsidies except the particular farm subsidies they happen to receive. Or the conservatives running up the nation's credit card on tax cuts for the current rich, then when it is time to start paying them off he suggests shifting the tax burden to the poor and future generations.

Alternative proposal: your state wastes tens of millions of dollars housing a prison population that is larger than the entire country of Canada's prison population. Setting aside for a moment the thought that having such a huge percentage of your population in jail does not make your state a bastion of "freedom" or "liberty", maybe if you didn't lock up so many drug users, you would be able to run a decent government.