Document Type

Article

Publication Date

1-2016

Abstract

Message from President: A favorite adage among philanthropically minded people holds that “it’s the people who matter,” that other concerns, whether politics or organizational structure or financing, may re-route the road to success or failure but that character and devotion ultimately determine outcomes. The notion that anyone with “heart” may succeed anywhere and under any circumstances may have a sentimental appeal, but even zeal and commitment must work in or against some sort of structure. Paradoxically, Louisiana decision-makers like the idea that clever people, especially youngsters, can break down any barrier even at the same time that they also adore structure—an affection demonstrated by lavish expenditures on the numerous legislative task forces that have attempted to reorganize our universities. The last few years have abounded in structural change, whether the reorganization of the LSU and the Southern University Systems or the rapid expansion of the Louisianan Community and Technical College System or in the administrative turnover that has wracked several University of Louisiana System campuses. The common denominator among all these incremental revolutions is a kind of internal outsourcing in which the educational and research functions of the university end up as confined, isolated segments of a larger operation that includes everything from para-professional sports to government lobbying to trademark management. At LSU, the first institution to reconfigure itself, restructuring was initially sold as a way to strengthen the statewide academic effort. What it actually yielded is (on the good side) the possibility of consolidation and improvement of financial and administrative functions and (on the bad side) a curious state of affairs in which the academic project, including the gigantic main campus, functions as an idling turbine barely driving a flagship without a mission and a fleet with too many destinations. Somewhat neglected and on low throttle, the former “main” campus provides the economic and brand-name power to keep the system as a whole functioning while the equally neglected satellite campuses wonder what they are supposed to do (other than attract tuition). In the new LSU configuration, the academic segment of the on-campus academic administration toils in the overheated engine room of its own energies while an assortment of ensigns on the mainland Lakeshore headquarters punch at control buttons that they barely understand. In the Southern University System, a similar arrangement manifests itself is a disconnect between the Baton Rouge command center and an array of campuses where the faculty are all convinced of their irrelevance to some unknown project. The University of Louisiana System offers an upside-down version of this disorder, with the campus commanders calling out reports to a central administration that holds the power but that seems barely to exist. Although this “internal outsourcing” aims to create efficient mechanisms to support teaching and research, the result of this new form of centralization is the opposite. Once the central administration is charged with supporting educational “units” of which it itself is neither a cultural nor economic part, the support effort usurps attention from the project being supported. As the research and education project slips from the position of preeminent purpose to parasitic distraction, academic input diminishes, with academic officers receding into minority positions on committees comprised largely of technocrats. A look at any of the four system offices in Louisiana, for example, will reveal only a minimal academic presence in the command and control structure. Technocrats lack tenure and so depend on—obey—university “CEOs” rather than voicing dissenting or even creative ideas. One solution to the loss of academic purpose that results from reliance on remote non-academic personnel involves truth in packaging. The modern-day university President performs almost no academic functions. Rather, he or she spends every day in one of three assignments: begging for money; lobbying politicians; or diffusing crises that might damage the institutional image. Such a university officer more closely resembles the nominal President of a nation with a parliamentary government in which the Prime Minister holds executive power. Revising the job description of the President to reflect actual duties would help to reduce executive power over the academic project, deferring it to academic professionals. After all, the Carolingian dynasty, a regime that filled the world with innovations, flourished only after Pepin the Short, a professional and a Prime Minister as much as a politician, absorbed the powers of the distracted king.

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