LSU Faculty Senate Publications

Document Type

Article

Publication Date

3-2012

Abstract

Message from President: With the advent of the political season and the opening of the Louisiana Legislature, universities up, down, and across our marshy state go public. Lacking competition from football and situated in a media market that generates fewer distractions than do major metropolitan areas, universities and their troubles routinely grab frontpage or top-of-the-hour placement in journalistic productions. Loud and colorful battles, whether against budget woes or recalcitrant lawmakers or consultants with reorganization plans, draw public attention to the big issues surrounding education but also distract public attention from the more subtle causes of university distress, many of which emanate from within universities themselves. Aristotle observes that courage is the first of virtues because its absence prevents the practice of all the others. It is difficult to perform philanthropy or to demonstrate grace while running in terror. Inversely, leadership with even a tiny bit of moxie creates its own tribes and supporters, for courage is surprisingly attractive. What Louisiana university leaders need to do— especially at those campuses that style themselves as statewide, national, research, or even Flagship institutions—is to begin stating clearly and directly and perhaps occasionally antagonistically precisely what it is that both universities as a whole and individual campuses are, do, and produce. Despite all the racket about role, scope, and mission statements, and despite all the clamor about Carnegie classifications, and despite all the quarreling with the Regents and the various Systems offices, we see precious little of such self-identification. Declaring a campus to be yet another among dozens or even hundreds of research or regional institutions dodges this challenge, making it seem that something has been said when only (borrowed) abstractions have been uttered. To date, not one Chancellor has taken the unconventional route of proclaiming that “yes, indeed we are officially a Master’s College and University with Medium Programs per the official taxonomy,” yet “however nice that may be, we here at Cypress Marsh Polytechnic are first of all aiming at creating and arts-and-sciences community for folks who live in the lowlands while we, proud duffers that we are, also advance sweet potato research in a way that is too concentrated for big schools.” Yes, every last institution in the land publishes a glitzy pamphlet showing how unique it is, but that standard approach to seeming non-standard is both de rigeur and at odds with the affirmation of what a given campus really is (rather than how it is classified or how it thinks it ought to be classified or perhaps what it thinks it wants in crude economic or political terms). Another way to characterize the aforementioned problem is to suggest that universities and their masters in Louisiana suffer from what might be called “Neville Chamberlain Syndrome”: an acute desire to placate adversaries and to maintain calm no matter what the cost. The trouble with this strategy is that it invites stronger antagonism and, with that, even more compromises. Few institutions or systems in Louisiana include executives trained in history or the liberal arts, with the result that the timorousness of a Chamberlain is intensified by naivete and even a bit of social class envy or ambition. Rather than thinking about the history pertaining to Pepin the Short when dealing with our snarling governor or rather than regarding Dr. Johnson’s comments on the vanity of human wishes when chatting with the mid-level ensigns of industry who try to influence university governance, more than a few leaders get distracted and feel complimented by the press of prestigious flesh on their upscaling paws. Even more than money, what Louisiana higher education needs is vigorous if folksy leaders who not only cultivate donors but who are also not to improve their favorite plutocrats’ minds: to teach while fundraising or lobbying and thereby gradually change the mentality of our would-be betters in the capitol and the clubhouse.

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