Lemming legislators guided to injure LA higher education
Although it’s well past a century-and-a-half in age, Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, with its dissection of how otherwise thinking people can get sucked into following the crowd on the flimsiest of reasoning, still applies today, as activity by Louisiana’s House Education Committee demonstrated yesterday.
The committee heard HB 964 by Rep. Jim Fannin, which transfers my employer Louisiana State University Shreveport into the University of Louisiana System, followed by its merger into Louisiana Tech University, and then letting out campus facilities to area community colleges. The bill passed 14-4, with all of the Shreveport-Bossier metropolitan area’s state representatives on the committee, Henry Burns, Thomas Carmody, and Jeff Thompson in favor.
Supporters paraded a passel of area interest group representatives, LSUS graduates, donors, politicians, and some of them fitting more than one category, and even some from the state level, plus other higher education honchos including a representative of the interests that served as their Pied Piper, Louisiana Tech president Dan Reneau, in front of the committee. They held themselves out as kinds of community organizers to assist LSUS in a quest to fix what ailed it, as indicated by stagnant enrollment figures and difficulty in introducing new programs. In other words, they asserted that the disease was so bad (one apocalyptically said the school would wither away in a matter of years without this intervention) that they told policy-makers the only way to save the patient was to kill him first and then, Frankenstein-like, resurrect him in new form via transfusion from Tech.
The fallaciousness of this reasoning should have been obvious at several levels, and was epitomized by the argument between the Board of Regents representatives and LSU System interim President William Jenkins and my boss a few levels up, LSUS Chancellor Vince Marsala. Essentially, the LSU System folks said the Regents had been stifling LSUS growth, while the Regents crowd said LSUS failed to follow through in trying to achieve that. The latter position was presented as evidence to support a takeover.
There’s tremendous irony in here, of course, as some supporters accused LSUS of being unable to grow and others that a merger would reduce duplication, when in fact Tech has facilities in the metropolitan area where several hundred students already have matriculated with degrees duplicating what LSUS offers. Perhaps without Tech allowed to poach them, these students would be at LSUS and alleviate concerns of lack of offerings and growth.
But, for sake of argument, let’s discount that fact and say the Regents guys were correct. If so, then unless they can argue convincingly that there is something about the very system that defines LSUS, how its governance structure and institutional culture is irreparably designed to bludgeon creativity and initiative and thereby is incapable of supplying what the metropolitan area needs, then the problem is one of leadership, of the high-raking people involved, not the institution (and several supporters went out of their way to praise the institution as a whole). If the village isn’t serving the people, you don’t destroy the village to save it, hoping the overlay of an alien other village with authority over it cures all ills, you replace the people who are not performing and thereby holding it back. Why not simply cure the patient by transferring LSUS into the UL System with new leadership installed? If the body otherwise is healthy, why insist on making a zombie of it?
This thought never seems to have occurred to the local supporters of the move, nor many on the committee who, like lemmings, replicated this lack of critical thinking in their support and followed the deluded crowd right along. It should have come as no surprise, as legislators typically in what appear to be local matters will follow the lead of the local representatives. But they also need to do what is best for the state as legislators, and here also they are afflicted by a another blindness.
Part of the momentum that swept for approval came because the only opponents who appeared to the committee were Jenkins and Marsala, and it was the former who, almost offhandedly (understated by necessity, as it turned out), noted that what was being discussed was the merger of two institutions 70 miles apart, which should have attendant problems of severe distance beyond those of different admission standards, quarter vs. semester system, etc. The wisdom of this hitching together becomes even more debatable when considering how such a move would make an inefficient higher education system delivery system even worse.
The inconvenient truth that Jenkins, nor anybody in any level of administration in Louisiana higher education, and a great many in the trenches like myself, will do anything to prevent coming to light is that Louisiana higher education is overbuilt and works inefficiently. There are too many physical institutions chasing too few students, creating waste and duplication. From the multiple boards on top to the dozens of technical school campuses on bottom, per capita costs are unjustifiably high and will never be brought under control unless the number of campuses is reduced at the baccalaureate-and-above level and among technical colleges.
In short, there are too many campuses spread out around the state, and if any rationality is to be brought to this system that distributes poorly resources, combinations where they make the most logistical sense must happen. That being the case, then the natural merger partner for Tech is with the institution just a few miles away, Grambling State University, or the one even 30 miles away, the University of Louisiana in Monroe. And if we are to “save” LSUS with a merger, why not it with its neighbor a few miles away, the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center—Shreveport, with which it already has several cooperative programs?
But Tech has no interest in any of these combinations. Tech leadership long has dreamed of aggrandizing itself by colonizing the metropolitan area. Bucolic Ruston confines it, and it has longed for increased physical access to an area that could attract more students, collaborations, and attention, ultimately meaning more money, resources, and power. In its cosmology, it recoils from melding with that icky “black” school down the road (whose programs are much more duplicative with it than with LSUS’), and why tussle with ULM, which exists on a more equal footing and might actually have Tech merged into it, for such a small metropolitan area as Monroe?
So this is why we have this entirely illogical scenario of leapfrogging 70 miles with exponentially more difficult and expensive problems of coordination, program delivery, and just general overall logistics because of that distance, as opposed to a merger literally just down the road. But Jenkins can’t point this out because then it would admit the larger proposition of maldistribution of higher education resources, and thereby increase pressure to create efficiencies, which means reduced resources, less power, and fewer jobs in state higher education. And Tech is happy to avoid this discussion in order to let the absurdity it supports continue to progress to increase its power. Thus, we get left with a higher education delivery system that, if this absurdity succeeds, becomes even less efficient and more difficult than ever to fix.
Even as legislators prove derelict in their duties if they fail to understand this verity, one can understand, even as some rail against the system’s shortcoming, why these folks may turn hypocritical and support this merger idea. For some, it may be that this planned marriage basically takes Tech off the market so that a future shotgun marriage isn’t arranged between it and Grambling. For others, after their failure to achieve, by the merits, the slam dunk case of all time for a merger, attempted last year between the University of New Orleans and Southern University New Orleans, a vote for this one they think will mean to the larger public that they are “doing something” about the inefficient delivery of higher education even as that achieves exactly the opposite.
Yet even if they possess the understanding of the detriment to Louisiana’s system of higher education as a whole that this would do, they may try in their minds to justify this merger by thinking it becomes the “salvation” of LSUS. Local supporters either seem blissfully unaware of the statewide implications, or they ignore them, in believing this illusion by discounting a cold, hard fact: campus governance interests drive campus decision-making. To bring the general to the specifics of this case, it means that an administrative superstructure that exists in Ruston, drawn from interests wedded to the campus in Ruston, will act to reflect those interests, which are not automatically complementary to those of the Shreveport-Bossier metropolitan area.
Local area supporters display shocking naïveté if they do not understand decisions made in regards to a satellite Tech campus in the metropolitan area always will reflect the interests of Tech’s superstructure in Ruston first, and the metropolitan area as an afterthought, no matter what efforts exist to open it up. When most of your physical assets, human capital, historical memory, and institutional culture exist in one cordoned area, decisions emanating from it concerning the satellite largely will reflect its priorities with no guarantee these will be congruent to the satellite’s, and to the benefit first of it. Supporters who hope against hope this will not manifest in any putative merger simply deny human nature, and if it comes off, in a couple of decades or so, they will be back with same complaints of under-service, hopefully the wiser for the reality that will have unfolded in front of them.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 11:05