LSU Faculty Senate Publications

Document Type

Article

Publication Date

9-2012

Abstract

Message from President: T. S. Eliot brooded that the world might end not with a bang but with a whimper. The new academic year, far from commencing with the sense of optimism that often accompanies a new tour of scholarly duty, is opening with a whimper in fearful anticipation of a bang: with the accumulated burden of several disappointing years and the fear that some greater calamity might erupt at any moment. As the annual parade of welcome messages pours from the electronic inkwells of assorted campus and system leaders, it might be time to look at those areas in which the administration could begin making at least minimal progress even despite the bad tone of the times. The following, admittedly small menu of options is somewhat short on optimism, yet some may find a a complex comfort in the thought that something could be done if we can find a leader not so cautious or intimidated as to be willing to do it. The greatest failure of the higher education leadership cadre in Louisiana has been its reluctance to serve as a public advocate for the life of the mind. Too busy avoiding perceived political risks, campus and system leaders around the state have looked the other way when it comes not only to academic freedom, but to explaining to a naive public the joy of inquiry and the pleasures of honest discovery. The bewildering silence of higher education leadership with regard to the teaching, in the public schools, of evolution or of scientific theories of the origins of the universe leaves the thoughtful public listening for a persuasive leader who would take public stands regarding controversial issues. Such a spokesperson for fearless learning would score high approval ratings not only with local faculty but also with the higher education community nationwide. A career could also be made by someone willing to affirm the integrity of public K–12 and public higher education. To date, leaders have not had the courage to point out that universities can never maintain high enrollment and graduation numbers only by cherry-picking the top students. The kind of volume that creates not only an LSU but an array of regional campuses cannot, in the long term, come only from elite or private schools. Promoting public K–12 education is the same as promoting public higher education. For an administrator who wants a job, it is also the same as ensuring his or her career success. A second, related failure is the monkish reluctance of higher education leadership to meet the people where they live: not only the subsets of people who become college-goers or college donors, but all the people. Over the past few years, I have suggested several means of doing this, from television spots like those used by the Chancellor of the University of Arkansas to appearances in the same north-Louisiana church pulpits in which the governor occasionally prophesies. An adept Chancellor or President could address such topics as “the mission of science” without touching on such hot spots as the Garden of Eden or the Big Bang and with considerable attention to the reasons that basic research matters or to where engineering might go after the eras of industrialization and space exploration. Such a Chancellor or President could genially boast about what LSU Music and Dramatic Arts Dean Larry Kaptain calls “cultural capital” and could point out that “workforce development” is a peculiar mission for institutions dedicated to the very best that is learned, thought, or discovered—to the proverbial “cutting edge.” A third area in which Louisiana’s academic leaders hesitate to speak is that of academic finance. The perennial debate over the TOPS program that subsidizes the college expenses of so many Louisiana students distracts from the more essential question of the financing of higher education largely on the basis of tuition and other self-generated revenues. Many if not most European universities receive state appropriations that cover the lion’s share of their budgets and charge minimal tuition. This arrangement inhibits gigantic recruitment campaigns that result in oddities such as a billboard advertising UNO that is positioned only a few miles from McNeese State and that is designed to purloin the students that “The Cowboys” are spending money to attract. TOPS, in any case, is a state appropriation disguised as a merit competition for students. A grand and glorious reputation awaits a campus executive who is willing to explain to the people that huge dispersals of scholarship money have a sentimental appeal—who wouldn’t want to “help our children”?—but are inefficient means of maintaining great universities. Administrators should be speaking similar truths about the entrenched system by which “F&A” and philanthropic money finances universities. Direct appropriations are far easier to manage and far more eligible for observation by those seeking “transparency” than is the elaborate and inefficient money recycling mechanism that now sustains most universities. The foregoing are only three of the areas where a courageous administrator could do great exploits and with that create a reputation that would sustain a fine career. Although these paragraphs contain critical and melancholy observations, they also express hope: they are intended to remind us that, even in the worst of times, the best of actions remain possible.

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