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LSU System must hire with changed environment in mind

It’s a wonder my former uber-boss, ex-Louisiana State University System President John Lombardi, lasted as long as he did, both in his job and in good health, as no doubt his case of athlete’s mouth from sticking his foot in it so many times was severe. But it’s good riddance because, in the final analysis, he did not have the best interests of higher education of Louisiana in mind – not the kind of person needed going forward.

On some issues, Lombardi was on target. Early in his reign, he sent around to the campuses a reprint of a column exhorting the increase of standards in instruction, definitely swimming against the currents in higher education as indicated by grade inflation and with a general weariness by faculty members to hold the line on quality when so many pressures, some external to them, some internal and part of the faculty culture, exist to let things slide.

He also correctly noted the intuitively obvious that students, who by far are the biggest beneficiaries of their educations, ought to pay more of that and relieve taxpayers of that burden to some degree (Louisiana still is well below the national average in average tuition and fees charged, despite having one of the higher per capita costs of higher education). The inherent redistributionist mentality only slowly disappearing from the consciousness of the state’s political culture that lies behind the low tuition concept fundamentally is at odds with increasing student achievement, because students who invest more of their own resources into education are more likely to work harder at it, and this discourages marginal students whose lack of ability or work ethic for it from wasting taxpayer dollars.

But at the same time, Lombardi, like much of academia, fell far too easily into accepting the flawed premise of wealth redistribution. Thus, he argued that the Taylor Opportunity Program for Scholars, which pays for tuition for students that meet extremely minimal standards of achievement, rather that have its standards increased resulting in reduced state expenditures, should become need-based in order to save money. (His crass remark then about seeing luxury cars parked in student lots at Louisiana State University Baton Rouge I knew then would come back to haunt him.) In other words, he argued that students by accident of birth whose families came into money by the time they were of college age should be discriminated against for no reason compared to other similarly-qualified students – if the program is supposed to reward scholarship and ability, where’s the logic or justice in applying extraneous and artificial standards to it?

Yet we can understand why he proclaimed such preferences as these when we understand, as evidenced through these words and subsequent deeds, where his fidelity lay. It was not in what was best for higher education, defined as policies that would improve the quality and efficiency of its delivery in Louisiana, because he so often took contrary approaches to that, as in his views on TOPS, or in his resistance to fundamental reforms recommended regarding the state’s overbuilt, maldistributed, and confused delivery system for higher education. That’s because he did, first and foremost, what was in the best interests of the LSU System.

Just so. After all, he was employed by its Board of Supervisors. His job was to ensure that the system got as many resources as possible with the most autonomy as possible – goals that often contradict the larger purpose of serving taxpayers and the citizenry. This is not deviant; it is entirely the norm for government as a whole and any particular agency in it. The nature of bureaucracy produces this behavior, and only elected officials can, if they have the will, check these tendencies and steer them more towards serving the public. Simply, every agency, left to its own devices, will act in its own best interests that may or may not comport to the genuine public interest.

Which makes ironic that the apparent straw that broke the camel’s back as to his employment was reacting to just such an attempt to push higher education along a path of improved efficiency and performance. Only a couple of days before his canning, Lombardi was defending publicly, and pugnaciously, the current duplicative system of higher education governance that empowers the system and its Board to the detriment of the goal of efficient, effective higher education delivery. That as well he got his lunch handed to him in argumentation by a representative of the Board of Regents only heaped onto his recent sins as seen by the Supervisors – “losing” the University of New Orleans to the University of Louisiana System last year, on the brink of “losing” my employer (for whom I don’t speak on this matter and whose leaders probably wish I weren’t writing anything at all about this) Louisiana State University Shreveport to merging with Louisiana Tech University (and his departure at this critical juncture means the Board thinks his presence was endangering the chances of blocking the merger), and continued cuts forced upon the system.

It seems that after that dismal performance, he had to be let go. Understand that it wasn’t because he was outspoken, in speaking inconvenient truths that would improve the public weal. Bluntness in discourse from political appointees benefits the public weal only when there’s actual truth there, which was not so in his case. Rather, he was a messenger trying to defend entrenched interests reluctant to change for the good of the state, and it was determined he no longer was an effective messenger by representatives of them.

Or, perhaps, the representatives increasingly do not bring these establishment attitudes with them onto Board service as newer members are appointed by former UL System president and current Gov. Bobby Jindal, or continuing members are changing them as the winds continue to blow in increasingly different direction from the past. In any event, Lombardi had to go as an obstacle to beneficial change and/or because he couldn’t effectively articulate and implement Board interests, which also may be evolving more to the presumed “One LSU” concept.

And this means the next system president should be one that will accede to working in a job less grandiose and powerful, just as the state should move power away from the system to the Regents, and in one committed to rationalizing the current state of higher education delivery in the state. That is, if the job even exists, courtesy of the idea to make LSUBR and the system one and the same, if policy-makers buy that. But it would be a mistake to bring in somebody that will so easily graft onto to the establishment as it currently is at the expense of the public interest, as did Lombardi.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I vote for one system, led by BR.

We do not need the 80-plus who worked in the system office.