Document Type

Article

Publication Date

12-2012

Abstract

Message from President: Whatever else it may connote, the Christmas season is about hope—about illumination during the darkest days of the year. Although it now basks in the highly refracted light of infamy, having been spanked by Louisiana’s Attorney General and having drawn reproaches from SACSCOC accreditors, the LSU System has, in the past, enjoyed more than a few Star-of-Bethlehem moments. When the University of Louisiana System diluted tenure guarantees, for example, the LSU System garnered applause for its flagship-quality approach to this foundation of academic freedom; when the Southern University System lurched into financial exigency, the LSU System glimmered over the horizon as an example of nimble financial management. These past achievements leave one wondering why the LSU Board of Supervisors is now eclipsing its past glories in the cloud of mistakes that is its restructuring and presidential search efforts. At the most superficial level, the actions of LSU’s Supervisors seem bewildering. Why it is that Board members who were all appointed by the same Governor and who have more than enough votes to do anything that the Governor orders should do something so damaging to their reputations as staging a vote on restructuring a mere thirty minutes after the release of the report on which that vote was allegedly based? Why a System should believe that “town hall meetings” that are little more than campaign speeches should count as community input is likewise a puzzler. We do not know whether there really are any problems within higher education that are not, plain and simple, induced by lack of money. Neither the Board nor the LSU System nor the Governor have released any hard numbers to show that the proposed changes either to the organization chart or the structure of universities will save any money or produce any improvement in standing. We can, however, be sure that the culture of not only LSU’s but indeed all Louisiana Boards will preclude success at problem-solving efforts. The astounding homogeneity of the LSU Board—not a single woman or minority citizen voted on the consolidation proposal—underlines the homegrown nature of higher education leadership, which is appointed by political district and which therefore bars refreshment from outside influences. Owing to this inbuilt chumminess, the Board, which is rumored to have rifts and factions that it keeps private, fears any vote or even conversation that threatens the veneer of unanimity. The result is a kind of ideological celebrity cult in which cohort groups, rather than cheering celebrities such as David Cassidy or Britney Spears, hoot and holler for the latest reform proposal from the capitol. Paternalism and childishness come together in an aversion to data and a suspicion of outside ideas that might mar the image of the latest matinee idol. A common feature of a celebrity cult, whether the worship of a movie star or of gubernatorial policies, is derivativeness. Celebrities fit extant rather than evolving ideas of the admirable. Louisiana Boards inevitably justify their innovations by referencing models from other states. In the same way that celebrities replicate our own shortcomings—sales of tabloids demonstrate that audiences love to discover that a “star” can fall victim to alcoholism or fight obesity—Boards look to states such as Florida that suffer from the same ills as does Louisiana. It is no accident that the search firm selected for the LSU presidential search is based in the south, discloses very little about its operations, and advocates for secrecy. All of those attributes reassure the Supervisor gang. Although we hear a great deal from the LSU System office about “moving forward” and “coming together,” LSU, like many other educational systems in Louisiana, is rather looking in the mirror while moving back into the comfort zone. There are both short-term palliatives and long-term cures to the problems that the behavior of the LSU Board of Supervisors symptomatize. In the short term, Boards need to shake off their fear of the expertise that abides in the faculty. Perhaps sensing the “competence” and “input” problems, the LSU Supervisors have begun breakfasting, at sixweek intervals, with selected faculty members. They should now heed the advice that has been generously proffered and should spend less time talking about their intention to make their own decisions. Second, the Supervisors need to start speaking out on educational issues, whether the value of graduate education in a state where entry-level job training is venerated or the merits of academic freedom in a land where evolution-denying abounds. The Supervisors should start telling the truth: for example, that the AGB report originally offered three scenarios, all of which led to a bright future, but that the Board chose only to pursue one of those options. Third, and in the long run, the Board should advocate for its own restructuring: for a new System in which Supervisors come from throughout the country or even world—in which a Board that seeks to make its institutions globally competitive begins practicing what it preaches.

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