Document Type

Article

Publication Date

2-2012

Abstract

Message from President: Nearly two months have slipped away since LSU completed a football season that produced an astonishing record of victories: a record that, even without a national championship as garnish, must surely count as a super-size main course in the meatiest of sports. Remarkably, what lingers from the past season is not the sweet aroma of victory but rather something of a bad taste. Football, like most sports, allegorizes the institutions that sponsor it. Identifying the reason that one of the greatest seasons in sports history is creating only a paucity of post-season joy is a good way to figure out what might be going wrong with Louisiana higher education. As is evidenced by the fervor with which adoring fans have defended the late Joe Paterno, a scuffle or scandal here or there seldom sours an audience. History will eventually show whether “Joe Pa” was a good or bad man. What his story now teaches us is that a charismatic figure with a bit of cultural savvy (and academic schmaltz) can stir up hope, enthusiasm, and support even when knocked to the deck. When we look at the leadership of the LSU football program, on the other hand, we find little in the way of vision, solidarity with the home institution, or even plain old warmth. Whether or not the leaders of the gridiron gang develop wise strategies, the strange introversion that contrasts with LSU’s sports success seems to undo any good will that an undoubted record of achievement produces. The shortfall of sympathy and gregariousness among the pigskin princes analogizes the character of not only LSU but of most Louisiana institutions of higher education. Over the last several decades, Louisiana’s schools have metamorphosed from isolated encampments to major urban institutions. By and large, campus administrations—which, like football teams, come under opposing pressure from both down-home culture and from national aspirations—have not been able to keep pace with the maturation of colleges and universities. Campuses all over Louisiana have developed complex, multi-constituency operating environments characterized by vigorous dialogue, something new and still threatening in easygoing Louisiana. Under pressure from target-seeking legislators who look for and attack failure, hobbled by small legislative and lobbying support, campus administrations tend to play it safe, turn inward, and avoid public disagreement in even its most mild forms. Collectively, Louisiana higher education suffers from what might be called “glass-jaw syndrome.” Political circumstances allow the delivery of only minimal punches while even mild blows raise fears of terrible consequences. Higher education management thus plays a two-quarterback system with only one quarterback. It must develop robust faculties, programs, and research records but yet it remains nervous about experimentation. In such an environment, even the support coalitions that do good work for the campuses develop a high degree of uniformity and conformity as well as caution, as if every player on the team were a defensive lineman. Louisiana’s universities need to come to grips with the public culture and the tradition of vigorous debate that made western universities the greatest in the world. Before we start talking about flagships or about restructuring or about anything at all, we need to create the social and cultural foundations of institutional greatness. Reducing the flow of diverse ideas also allows the governor and the legislature to set one campus against another—the equivalent of building an entire season on in-state rivalries and rent-a-win teams—thereby discouraging statewide solutions. Structural changes—a new offense—are needed, but not in the form of shuffling campuses from one system to another or kicking up turf wars. What is needed is a new species of administrator who is skilled in inter-campus exchanges and adept at faculty relations. We need a few folks who can call the big play, who can go deep and otherwise take risks safe in the knowledge that even when failure is probable, the people and even the opposition will applaud courage more than cowering and will always give their support to those who try.

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