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Remarks invite stronger effort for university reform

One thing about the guy who would be the ultimate signatory on my upcoming promotion request, Louisiana State University System President John Lombardi, is that he doesn’t shy away from giving himself a black eye with an ill-timed, self-induced punch to the face in the metaphorical sense with his rhetoric. Such self-abasement, even if unwitting and not admitted, willingly received as a consequence of a desire to speak freely, normally would appear refreshing to the casual observer in a world where most politicians avoid the merest hint of saying anything controversial, except that the self-interest Lombardi betrays by such comments is so obvious and craven.

Lombardi went bare-knuckle on himself again in front of the Louisiana State University Baton Rouge Faculty Senate. Whether he knew at least one member of the fourth estate was present to transcribe his remarks remains immaterial; these are open meetings by law and so one might want to be a little politic, or at least critically think, about the kinds of things you say. Or maybe Lombardi had too much of an urge to shoot from the hip that on comments about restructuring from within the LSU System. Regardless of motive, they serve only to encourage greater fervor to overturn the very interests he tried to protect with them.

With Lombardi one always must translate what he says in order to discover the attitude behind it. Thus, when Lombardi stated he and the LSU System (as according to a news release) were “neutral” on the idea broached by Gov. Bobby Jindal to merge the University of New Orleans, an LSU System member, and Southern University New Orleans, a Southern University System member, and place the new UNO into the University of Louisiana System, and then began to give a rudimentary opinion on it that downplayed the idea, we have to decode the real message behind those statements.

Lombardi pointed out, correctly, the “remarkably different missions” of UNO and SUNO that may not mesh well. To be more specific, UNO was to be an urban research university that had the capacity to produce scholars (such as me), while SUNO was an urban teaching university designed to serve a previously-underserved population. But just because they are conceived as “different” does not mean that one or both are even correct for today’s environment or that they even are being fulfilled.

Let’s face it, how well can we consider the mission of a baccalaureate institution of any kind being fulfilled when the average American College Test score of its students was (in 2000) 14.6, far below the national average of about 21, and only five percent of its four-year-degree, full-time, freshmen entering in the fall semester graduate from the institution in six years? As a resource-utilization tool, open admission to Louisiana’s four-year institutions is a spectacular failure and, recognized as such by the Board of Regents, will change in the next year-and-a-half. If the mission is to let in and let go of almost every student who can produce a debased high school diploma and fog a mirror, that mission needs to be cancelled and replaced, as a merger of SUNO into UNO would do.

So, since the departure of Southern weakens the SU system, Lombardi remarked that he supports a “strong and viable,” thereby presumably unaltered, SU system, that needs to work together with the LSU system, also presumably best lest unchanged, because “we share a history.” Here, we get two-for-one in terms of necessary translation.

Translation: “Because part-and-parcel of this is the removal of UNO from the LSU System, that makes that system and therefore my position weaker. Also, when we start removing parts from systems and start shuffling them around, it makes it easier to get rid of the duplicative higher education boards in the state and that goes beyond weakening my position, it eliminates my job.”

His statements also do their best to divert away from, if not deny, common attitudes among the baccalaureate-and-above institutions in the LSU System not LSUBR – that the Baton Rouge campus gets an inordinate amount of attention and resources and that they would be better off totally separate from it. That muffled sound of cried of joy emanating from the New Orleans Lakefront when word of Jindal’s statement came out can be traced to the UNO campus, no matter how measured their administrators’ official pronouncements on the statement were.

A similar issue of command and control comes across from Lombardi relevant to his remarks about a group called the Flagship Coalition that seeks greater autonomy for LSUBR. He appears to give it passable marks for its desire to give LSUBR more autonomy, but faults it for “extreme arrogance” because it claims to have the correct vision for where public universities should go that isn’t, well, his or other education establishment professionals’ views.

Thus, translated, containing again a bonus: “Just because the Flagship Coalition represents the interests of those entities who would employ the vast majority of our graduates, know what capabilities they need from them, and pay the bulk of taxes to educate them doesn’t mean they know better than us how to provide that education. Also, we better not get too excited about their ideas or the direction they imply we should go or else we’ll lose the safety net of taxpayer dollars because we’ll turn into what the University of Oregon wants to become, which means working harder and with fewer of us probably including me.”

But the most baffling comment made by Lombardi, which seems to indicate obtuseness even after three decades in public higher education, came when he declared that fiscal conservatives “ought to be mortified of the socialist structure that you have for higher education.” Perhaps Lombardi attempts here to use such an observation to buttress university’s abilities to set their own levels of tuition, by implying that not to do so is anti-free enterprise.

Therefore, the translation: “If you don’t let us set our own tuition levels, you elected officials are all a bunch of socialists – even though you’re far more likely to find such attitudes prevalent in the academy and we still want taxpayers in Louisiana (even after recent budgetary pullbacks) in terms of direct subsidies and those indirect (like the Taylor Opportunity Scholarship Program) to pay for half of higher education’s expenditures.”

One wonders about Lombardi’s learning curve on this matter. How can public higher education be anything but socialist by definition – government using the people’s resources to provide something the private sector can and does? And note the inherent contradiction in his statements – he wants greater autonomy for higher education systems, but only so long as something close to the present governance structure remains to exercise that autonomy, of which he is part.

And it represents a thinly-disguised attempt to suck more revenue into higher education without accountability. After all, as noted above, taxpayers pay not just directly into higher education but indirectly as well because they foot the $135 million for TOPS. So if university systems gain unfettered control of their tuition levels, taxpayers lose any direct check on university spending decisions absent any accompanying accountability measures addressing the products of those expenditures. For, under this scenario, systems could suck more money out of taxpayers (especially if there is an increased guarantee of its funding) simply by raising tuition – and only strengthens the socialist nature of the system with this pipeline of public money increased in volume at the whim of unelected appointees. Without accountability built into the system, whether by having elected officials make funding decisions or making that funding contingent on benchmarks, Lombardi’s implication that greater higher education control over tuition makes for less “socialism” is a chimera.

Which was the whole point of the GRAD Act, which has given universities some temporary power over tuition levels in exchange for greater (if lukewarm) accountability. And, to his credit, Lombardi recognizes the quality control to improve university performance to make for accountability (such as increased rigor) must come from within universities as a reduction in standards to present the illusion of reaching accountability metrics is self-defeating. But Lombardi, as these statements indicate, wants more autonomy with less interference for the LSU System but is unwilling to countenance actions that decrease the system’s, and his, power in exchange for forcing higher education to be more efficient and accountable in its delivery – restructuring systems, merging and consolidating campuses, and reducing student intake into the system by raising admission and TOPS standards.

In short, Lombardi’s statements on this matter, as has been his habit in the past, come off as self-serving, protective of the existing order, and welcoming of change only insofar as it strengthens certain special interests. That’s not surprising nor can he be blamed, for as an employee of the LSU System he is expected to articulate its Board of Supervisors’ interests which have been to accept as little change as possible. Except now Jindal is stamping his majorities onto it and onto all the other boards dealing with higher education and legislators are losing more and more patience with those running higher education who are interested in acquiring more power and resources while disregarding the burgeoning demands of the people to use their resources more wisely. And Lombardi’s rhetorical obstinacy to necessary reforms only increases the public’s and their representatives’ disenchantment with those elites and invites even more heavy-handed and drastic reform when it does come.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mr. Sadow, do you think it matters to anyone that SUNO is now a selective admission institution? Even with the standards, the enrollment went up in Fall 2010, and there are early indicators that retention is improving. For whatever reason, that never seems to be a point in this discussion.