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Merit, not parochialism, must guide offering decisions

It’s not politically correct, but it’s true what University of Louisiana System Board of Supervisors member Michael Woods says about the Louisiana Board of Regents’ hesitancy in granting Louisiana State University Shreveport even a part of a Ph.D. program – it’s territorial and could delay or excise entirely the ability of LSUS to offer a doctoral degree in its own back yard..

Add to LSUS alumnus Woods’ comments the observation about the Board's position made by LSUS Chancellor Vincent Marsala: “short-sighted.” The program would offer a Ph.D. in bioinformatics and computational biology, contemplated for and developed over years by LSUS, which fits in nicely with a collaborative effort made with the LSU Health Sciences Center-Shreveport and Louisiana Tech University. The program has even more value now that it appears more likely than not that the Air Force will base its Cyber Command Center at Barksdale AFB in Bossier Parish.

The program has received cautionary approval by the Regents who must authorize any new degree offerings in the state. The report does not at all indicate that the program should not be offered, nor that LSUS could not contribute significantly to it. Rather, it expresses reservations that LSUS ought to be a part of it, noting that the higher education master plan while not prohibiting LSUS from offering doctoral degrees does not explicitly permit such offerings.

However, the Regents chairman Pat Strong personally seems to question whether the bringing of a doctoral program will really enhance the Shreveport metropolitan economy – “a doctoral program being that important to economic development.” That might make sense if it was a Ph.D. program in political science being discussed, but it seems pretty clear with the medical industry there and Cyber Command probably coming that there are going to be economic benefits, possibly substantial ones.

And if the Regents are so wedded to the plan, perhaps it needs changing. There’s no reason why the state’s four-year comprehensive university in the state’s third-largest metropolitan area should not have the ability at least to collaborate on such a program. It already is forced to collaborate for masters degrees with outsider Louisiana Tech – a school 70 miles distant from the area.

Woods also was courageously candid about that aspect, pointing out Tech has long sought placement in the Shreveport market. This brings up an entirely different question about the overbuilt nature of Louisiana higher education but if that’s not going to be addressed, then the next best thing is to give preference to universities in their areas – and that means LSUS in Shreveport, not Louisiana Tech.

Part of the problem is, historically, the insistence of the LSU system to base as much as it could in Baton Rouge. LSUS began only 40 years ago (over a century after the modern incarnation of LSU Baton Rouge) and spent its first decade as a junior college. It’s not just Shreveport either: there was no LSU campus in New Orleans until 50 years ago, it took several years to establish its own identity, it could not offer graduate degrees until 40 years ago (even as it became the second-largest in the state in enrollment) and it wasn’t until the 1970s that doctoral degrees were allowed there. The LSU system would not even allow dormitories to be built there until several years later and until the 1990s not for LSUS (and still vastly restricts their capacity both places). (For the record, not only am I obviously an LSUS employee although not its spokesman, but I also received my Ph.D. in political science from the LSU member institution in New Orleans, the University of New Orleans.)

This lingering desire to keep system campuses outside of Baton Rouge more as adjuncts to the flagship school than as separate entities has encouraged other universities wishing to poach on the natural LSUS market, and creates another red herring argument to prevent LSUS expansion through its involvement in this degree – that it would be the smallest school that could offer a Ph.D. in the state. But, as Woods points out, why shouldn’t this be allowed given it is the third largest market in the state and facing competitive pressures from out-of-state nearby institutions? (And the LSU system is giving full support to LSUS in this matter.)

If this is point of contention, then it also is natural to ask why Louisiana Tech, in an area with a population of about 20,000, gets to offer five different doctoral degrees most of which are in areas in which LSUS offers degrees? (What makes more sense, offering a Doctorate of Business Administration in the booming, thriving commercial capital of Ruston, or in the metropolitan area that is 18 times its size? Or a Doctorate of Education in an area with 67,000 students or one with a ninth of that number?) If degrees are going to be offered where the people aren’t, shouldn’t different degrees that have economic development value be offered where they are regardless of the size of the school as long as it has the capacity to deliver that education?

Woods’ remarks demonstrate there are just no clothes on those who bring up the questions of mission or size to deny LSUS not even wanting to offer a doctorate on its own but just to do so in collaboration. Market forces and economic development considerations must take precedence over parochialism in deciding the worth of this program.


Anonymous said...

I like the way Chancellor Marsala makes LSUS’s case for the Ph.D. program. He emphasizes LSUS’s prior work and the potential for collaboration with LSUHSC. That makes good sense. It suggests that if such additional Ph.D. programs are to be established, LSUS should have them.

If Louisiana were a meritocracy, LSUS would be in the catbird seat.

Your comments about changing the master plan make sense also. What is sacrosanct about this plan?

Nevertheless, the decision regarding if and where a Ph.D. program are to be offered should not hinge on economic development potential. If Louisiana wants to work on economic development, a business incubator would be a more efficient use of resources. Decisions regarding Ph.D. programs ought to be driven by academic considerations, not economic development.

If LSUS can better educate Ph.D. students in bioinformatics and computational biology, then it ought to have the programs. Otherwise, Louisiana ought to find graduates from schools that can best educate Ph. D. students. It could then set up a business incubator, perhaps modeled after the one at LSU-BR. Kudos to Chancellor Marsala for emphasizing the academic merits of LSUS in providing these programs.

On the other hand, your suggestion that LSUS should be favored because of its location sounds . . . well . . . parochial.

Anonymous said...

This debate is just a symptom of the real problem, which is too many four-year universities in the state of Louisiana. There are simply too many schools fighting over pieces of the same pie. It's laughable that LSUS, LSUA, Northwestern State, Grambling State, La. Tech, and La. Monroe all exist.