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Built on old paradigm, LSU report set to disappoint

If the effort to transform the Louisiana State University System into producing better higher education delivery has any chance of success, the strategy that looks to have been chosen rests on an outdated paradigm that will doom the effort.

On Friday, indications are that the group looking into system transition – almost all members having been connected with Louisiana State University Baton Rouge or the LSU System as graduates, employees, or benefactors and with the lead consultant also having graduated from and taught there – will issue a report stating that the new consolidated system will need … wait for it … more money! The consultant says $200 million worth, which could attract prominent academics and researchers, more graduate students, could expand undergraduate research, begin replacing the 200 faculty members lost in the past four years, and could give remaining faculty a pay increase.

New system/institution President F. King Alexander aims a bit lower, admitting that higher education dollars for state-supported institutions are scarce everywhere. He said he’d just like to see $40 million to get back what he said was 220 faculty members let go over the past four years. Regardless, it’s the same tune, just played more softly: more money will make the institution highly respected and thereby better.

Although the report has yet to be released, you can bet it that while it will make a strong appeal in this direction, it will say almost next to nothing about how it can better use what resources it gets currently other than from function consolidation. Which, the record shows, are not all that different from what resources it got four years ago and the numbers of which make questionable the veracity of the equation that more money thrown at more personnel is necessary to create a better institution.

In 2009, LSUBR was budgeted $357.1 million, of which $262.5 million went to pay 4,314 (3,750 full-time equivalent, almost all of them faculty members or research staff associated with their grant activities or administrators) unclassified employees on the books as of the first week of the fiscal year. The 2013 budget apportions $340.5 million, with the latest headcount showing 4,186 (3,522 FTE) costing $255.5 million. (As the other remaining parts of the LSU System are considered primarily teaching and service undergraduate and graduate institutions, or are separate research institutions, or are in the cases of medical institutions being contracted out of the system, only these figures are relevant for comparative purposes given the strategy outlined above.)

In other words, from 2009 to 2013 the budget has fallen 4.6 percent, while the institution has lost 228 FTE unclassified employees, almost all faculty members, or 6 percent. Most notable about these small declines is that, even as leaders keep emphasizing higher pay and more money overall are needed, the average unclassified salary has gone up from $70,000 a year to over $72,500 annually or 3.6 percent in a nationally low inflationary environment. And if we believe the anecdotal evidence that highly-paid faculty members, because they pull in lots of research dollars, have left disproportionately, then the change in average salary increase has been understated. This suggests the purported crisis of pay is at least exaggerated, or has been created by steering disproportionately more pay to those not in the classroom. (And note that in Alexander’s request he is asking for an average salary of over $181,000 a year for these additional hires!)

Presumably, research bucks are important because they allegedly lead to higher quality education. Transition team member Jim Firnberg thought incoming federal research dollars should double the current level of $160 million, and that it would take between $600,000 and $2 million to attract one high-quality researcher and the support staff capable of bringing in millions of dollars in federal grants, providing another rationale to justify the $200 million figure.

But in fact, study of this area of whether production of research equates to better instruction (that is, students learn more and better and become better thinkers) reveals there is little to no relationship. And anybody who has been in academia any length of time generally forms the anecdotal impression that typically the better researchers often are less effective in the classroom because conducting research and getting students to learn more useful information and to think more critically entail different skill sets not often found in the same individual.

Certainly, an emphasis on increasing research capacity where that is done smartly as suggested by team member Lee Griffin to concentrate on a very few identifiable areas of comparative strength cannot hurt. But it must remain a secondary goal to teaching more students to know more information that is relevant and to become better critical thinkers. And only recently have baby steps been taken – instigated from outside of Louisiana higher education – to create mechanisms to assess imprecisely just how well institutions do this.

Further, the strategy of more money for more research equals higher quality is blind to the paradigm shift occurring in higher education policy. The era of a price-inelastic market that created an almost Soviet-like emphasis on increasing inputs that supposedly created more output is ending as the indirect resource suppliers, taxpayers, and direct resource suppliers, those paying tuition, question the quality of the product for the money paid, the price inflation of which, fueled by generous federal grants and backed loans, is matched by its grade inflation. It is this dissatisfaction that is driving the proprietary sector to new heights while the public and private sectors languish, and has signaled that federal government generosity cannot continue.

Married with fiscal pressures in the states that curtail their contributions to public higher education – in part also a result of an increasingly skeptical public – it’s no longer good enough to assert that shoveling more money into the system will make it perform better. Instead, it must work better by rededicating itself to its core purpose of educating students first and foremost to learn useful skills and to become better critical thinkers. This means getting away from the excesses of the multiversity and shedding its surplus baggage of programs and people that makes for more inefficient resource use.

Specifically, besides broad back-office consolidation, the new LSU System (which essentially is conceptualized as LSUBR with the other now separate institutions more formally integrated to become arms of it) needs to rigorously review what it does and whether discrete parts contribute to a broad liberal arts education or conveys needed professional skills, and of the latter especially emphasizing those that carry comparative advantage. Those courses and programs that do not meet these criteria need excising, no matter how politically correct or connected they are.

Also, the practice of paying state and tuition dollars to faculty mainly as researchers, with little or no classroom experience, must go the way of the dinosaur. All outside of professional schools should have some undergraduate teaching responsibilities, and a higher proportion of their compensation and tenure and promotion decisions should rest on teaching ability: how much useful information do their students learn and how well do they think critically?

Finally, state policy-makers outside of higher education must join in this focus with policy changes. Legislators must give greater latitude to schools to set their own tuition, remove counterproductive laws to efficient resource use such as free tuition for more than 12 hours taken a semester and late course drop dates, and impose more exacting standards for judging outcomes that will create incentives for universities to perform more efficiently by stressing teaching.

While it’s not officially out yet, initial indications are the report isn’t headed in that direction. If that’s the case, ignoring the evolving environment as it is, this becomes a recipe to have the LSU System contribute to Louisiana higher education stagnating and sinking either further.

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