LSU Faculty Senate Publications

Document Type

Article

Publication Date

3-2015

Abstract

Message from President: In times like the present, the offhand suggestion that “it doesn’t really matter” comes across as crude and unfeeling, a kind of cheap cynicism voiced by a privileged person in the midst of other people’s struggles. Such a flip remark seems doubly dubious when attached to questions so pressing as the current budget crisis. Yet, in some sad sense, this idiom applies exactly to the situation in which fund-starved universities find themselves. Momentarily setting aside the stress and anxiety experienced by thousands of noblyintentioned professionals and other university employees, one can, without callousness, affirm that no sum of money will solve the budget crisis until the fundamental management problem of all Louisiana public institutions, what might be called the “topless pyramid” challenge, is addressed. Although the proportions of the current fiscal crisis exceed all preceding threats to public education, that crisis has had many predecessors, whether those arising from boom-bust cycles in the chemical industries, those related to natural disasters, those arising from national economic crises such as the mortgagedriven recession of 2008, or those triggered by the insouciance of Louisiana’s education-unimpaired leadership. In all these earlier upheavals as in the present perturbation, university management has adopted a sometimes shrill and reactive, sometimes passive and placating approach to dealing with both lawmakers and governors. Worried that too aggressive or assertive a posture will irritate the top level of government—as clearly occurred when former LSU System President John Lombardi peppered the capitol halls with his special brand of erudite invective— system presidents, campus chancellors, and all those under their sway have avoided overt disagreement with or attacks on those who, through their actions, bring universities to, if not ruin, then at least dereliction. The result, of course, has been decades of partial formula funding owing to a reluctance to bite the hand that feeds only starvation rations. The rhetoric of caution is not uncommon among the current tribe of hothouse academic leaders, most of whom have received a hybridized education from questionable programs either in “educational leadership” or in some pruning-ready branch of public policy studies. What is unique to Louisiana is a persistent vacancy at the top of the pyramid of deference (and sycophancy). Louisiana higher education is highly pyramidal, with clear command lines ranging through definitive ranks all the way up to the governor himself or occasionally herself, yet the peak of the pyramid is usually absent. In recent times, this absence has manifested itself in the form of a traveling, ambitious governor who is never present to make decisions or provide direction, but, in past times, what might be called the “buck stops here point” has also been empty, whether through corruption, in which unseen interests replace the sovereign authority, or idealism, per the administration of Buddy Roemer, where nothing happened owing to faith in a future that never arrived. Louisiana, after all, is the last state modeled after the French monarchy and the Roman imperium. When the last step in the command chain is god (or the gods) but the state itself is secular, the top is, perforce, missing. In the day-to-day life of academic administration, the “absent top” phenomenon works itself out in configurations such as the new “oneLSU,” which has resulted not in the emergence of a single academic powerhouse but in a captain-free flagship campus that everyone regards as rudderless, a flagship that is surrounded by an array of lesser vessels—the regional campuses—waiting for the big ship to make some kind of move. At Southern University, the absent-top disorder appears in the form of the thought-abjuring desire to imitate what LSU has done so badly. At the LCTCS, the inability to find the top authority appears as the frantic drive to get money from miscellaneous industrial donors while coming up with whatever program will please a workforce development authority that is itself barely in view of a governor who is busy chasing an elusive top position. As a first step toward resolving the chase after an invisible top, universities need to flatten their own pyramidal structures. One option might be an interlocking system of accountability. Instead of a single chain in which a chair answers to a dean who reports to a provost who tries to stay in favor with a president who dangles from the governor’s yo-yo string, universities might ask a council of deans to evaluate financial services and auxiliary services while asking auxiliary services and the business college to evaluate the performance of an assortment of departments— and so forth, in a multifaceted, interlocking arrangement that creates multiple perspectives on the various units and that keeps the top of the pyramid in view, that converts the administrative into a kind of Mobius strip where the surface—reality—is always in view. Such an arrangement might or might not work with state government, but it certainly could help institutions that, in any case, receive less than half their resources from public funds.

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