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LSU seeks glory beyond grid iron

Dan Juneau -   Sep 13, 2012

As trying as these times are at LSU, all is well at the heart of the campus, Tiger Stadium. With the football team getting the fall semester off to a roaring start, the financial crisis gripping the school and demoralizing its faculty is not felt in the athletic department. Performance on the field is exceeded only at the bottom line, where revenues have tripled over 15 years. The 88-year-old shrine underwent a facelift in the off-season, and investment in the prime asset continues with plans afoot to increase seating to 100,000 and to add 65 suites, rentals for which were snapped up in two and a half days, at $69,000 per.

The embarrassment of riches among the ruins inspired university leaders to come up with a unique revenue-sharing plan by which the athletic department will commit $7.2 million annually for five years to assist academics, and to further evenly split sports surpluses above $5 million per year.

University leaders extolled the enlightened arrangement with accolades usually reserved for Billy Cannonís runback. Yet the after-glow faded when political commentator and LSU alum C.B. Forgotston, with cynicism born of experience, declared the new deal meaningless, because it would enable the Jindal administration to further reduce state funding to the university by that much or more, as early as the mid-year budget cuts expected for December.

Gov. Bobby Jindal would rather not have presided over $420 million in cuts in state support for higher education in the past four years, but he has favored ill-advised tax cuts, exemptions and credits over maintaining a stable revenue base. While he has proved friendly to the teaching of creationism in grade schools, he has adopted a Darwinian approach to the plight of colleges, letting the weakest wither toward extinction.

Itís not that the state doesnít spend a lot of money on higher education, for about $150 million is ticketed this year for the free-tuition program, TOPS. Former LSU President John Lombardi voiced what many other college leaders believe, that much of what goes to scholarships for average students would be better spent on improving academic offerings. But with TOPS so enormously popular, the Legislature has rejected any attempts to cap the awards. Lombardi, following his last lecture to legislators on the subject, was sacked.

Amidst the dire circumstances, you might expect pervasive gloom in the meeting room of the LSU Board of Supervisors. Instead, the board, for years split into factions, has been moving lately with unified force and direction, like a well-coached offensive line. It is currently is overseeing a thorough house-cleaning of top administrators, while it contemplates combining the positions of president and chancellor, both currently vacant. Under discussion is a broader consolidation of the strongest parts of the disparate, dysfunctional university system into a dynamic flagship institution.

Given that all board members, except the student representative, have been appointed by this governor, there is widespread assumption that he is calling the plays. Board members will argue instead that they and Jindal are moving toward a consensus for the "One LSU" plan that was developed by a group of major alums and supporters, who call themselves the Flagship Coalition.

The concept is easier for Jindal to embrace than past failed legislative attempts, which he half-heartedly backed, to restructure all of higher education. The big thinking is that once LSU puts it own organizational chart in order, establishing its flagship primacy, other changes will follow among the rest of the schools and systems, such as the previously discussed merger of Louisiana Tech and LSU Shreveport.

One tough question is what to do with LSUís responsibility for the public hospital system, which, with the recent big reduction in federal funding, further complicates the mission of training doctors. At its last board meeting, without discussion, members passed a resolution that could lead to turning over the operation of the hospitals to private companies.

The final decision on the hospitals, as with reshaping the management of LSU, can be made without the advice and consent of the quarrelsome Legislature, thus making those paths of least resistance all the more attractive to the governor.

Whether or not these big ideas, should they come to pass, make a positive difference for faculty and students--who wonít have much say in them either-- remains to be seen. But the hope is that LSU, after years adrift, can set a course that promises at least a return on the athletic departmentís investment.

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