Then hurricanes Katrina and Rita came.
"I think that we were on the verge of achieving a jump, not just incremental growth," says Dr. Magdy Bayoumi, head of the computer science department and director of the Center for Advanced Computer Studies.
Looming state budget cuts that threaten to severely impact higher education institutions like UL are rapidly deflating that optimism. UL and other colleges are now walking a fine line of complying with mandated cutbacks and maintaining their academic reputations.
"We were lucky in Lafayette," Bayoumi says. "We missed Katrina and Rita, but the budget cut is our hurricane right now."
Because of the hurricanes, the state is facing an estimated $960 million loss in tax revenue this year. The state Legislature began a special session last week in part to determine how it will cut spending to make up for the loss.
UL Vice President of Academic Affairs Steve Landry says the state has told UL to expect a 6 percent, or $3.7 million, cut in funding for this fiscal year, which began in July. The state is also instructing the university to prepare for what could end up being up to a 10 percent cut, which would be about a $6.3 million hit.
UL is trying to make the impact of the cuts as subtle as possible and escape having to cut whole curriculums or programs.
"What happens beyond this point?" Landry asks. "I don't know. We're executing as hard as we can to get to this 5 and 6 percent cut without jeopardizing any programs, but they're not off the table. If we go much further than this, who knows what kind of cuts we'll have to make to get there."
For the past two months, a statewide spending freeze has eliminated any overtime pay and kept the university from hiring unfilled faculty positions. It has also kept current faculty from using university funds for travel expenses or to purchase any new equipment; only a department's self-generated funds can be used for those purposes. Additionally, UL is readjusting class schedules for next semester in order to go to a four-and-a-half day workweek, which it hopes will result in significant savings in utility costs.
What's more, the university is eliminating about 100 adjunct professors from its payroll. At UL, part-time adjunct professors run the gamut from English department support staff to local attorneys who teach business law and medical practitioners who instruct in the nursing program. UL will also likely scale back on its graduate assistants, which aid in teaching classes and in research projects, though Landry could not say how many are likely to be cut. The university currently has about 350 graduate assistant positions.
Landry says the budget cuts are a work in progress, which is making it hard to plan and communicate the cuts' impact to faculty. While a 6 percent cut seems to be the current working number, Landry fears that it could be even more severe.
"I can't settle into any kind of confidence level that we've seen the end of this yet," he says. "As dynamic as this whole thing has been, I've kind of given up second-guessing anything. I came in one day two weeks ago thinking we were facing a 3 percent cut, and 24 hours later it was up to a 5 percent, and then the day before yesterday it was being articulated that it was going to be 6 percent. However, we're also being asked to turn in a 10 percent cut plan, which is drastic."
The sense of uncertainty has already been rippling through campus. Bayoumi says several members of his faculty have expressed concern over what the funding constraints will mean for the university.
"I've had many faculty come to me and say, 'Is this a sign to look for another job?'" he says. "It's a very fine line of being both serious and taking the cuts and actions that we need to maintain the fiscal integrity of the institution without scaring all my faculty."
Both Bayoumi and Dr. Darryl Felder, who heads the biology department, say their faculty is being heavily recruited now from other universities who see this as an auspicious time to lure away some of UL's finest.
"There is a real perception around the country that it's a good time to do a little sheep stealing," Felder says. "The opportunities are out there for every level [of employees] to go. There's nobody tying them down here. The grass is greener, and some will move."
They are particularly worried that some of the younger faculty may be rethinking their situation at UL.
"These are mobile people," Felder says. "We got them here because we have a strong existing program. One of my concerns is we must provide a very secure setting for them to know that things will continue, and we will continue to grow. We're not going into some type of static mode."
Bayoumi and Felder say they each have three positions within their departments that are going unfilled.
Dr. Susan Mopper, a professor in biology who also serves as director of the UL Center for Ecology and Environmental Technology, recently lost a research associate after he was recruited away by an engineering company offering double the salary to help design the next generation of offshore oil rigs.
The departure has left Mopper without a key part of her team, which in the past year has been able to help attract almost $750,000 in National Science Foundation grants.
Mopper says the university administration has told her it will work with her in finding someone to fill in those duties. However, she adds that many professors worry about how outside perceptions of UL may change.
"If NSF thinks we're downgrading, they're not going to want to fund us," Mopper says. "We have to continue to do good research here if we want to continue to get support. It's hard enough as it is being in Louisiana, which has a reputation of being weak in education and a little out of step with other states. We have to stay competitive at a high level, at a national level, which several departments at this university are. State mandated budget cuts can undermine that, which in turn will have a cascading effect on our ability to maintain a high level of research."
Mopper and her peers are trying to keep an optimistic outlook.
"The reaction of our faculty," says Bayoumi, "is we cannot leave this place while they need us because the impact of this budget cut has not been felt yet. It is like trying to be good citizens. We'll have to do our duties. But from my point of view, if this situation goes on for a long time, I'm sure I will lose faculty. No doubt about that."
Both Bayoumi and Felder compare the current budget scare to the one that followed the fallout of the oil industry in the 1980s. During that time, UL was also forced to cut back on faculty and halt new spending.
"On the heels of that, we grew nicely," Felder says. "I can't totally explain it, other than that it really got people thinking innovatively, made them scrappy and had them going out and looking for opportunities."
The world is a politically tense place these days with hot spots ranging from the Middle East to Ukraine. In Louisiana and Mississippi, where the political chessboard tends to be a lot less threatening and at times entertaining, this election season is living up to expectations.
American companies export smog; UN calls for cease-fire in Gaza; fist bump keeps germ transfer down and more national and international news for Monday, July 28, 2014.
Monday's Blogs from the Bog!
Louisiana has joined nine other states in support of Indiana’s appeal of a federal judge’s ruling that the Hoosier State’s ban on sam-sex marriage violates the Constitution.
The Saints are being cautious in an effort to minimize risk of re-injury.
LSU Health Sciences Center says people with a common, hard-to-treat kind of lung cancer can join a new national trial to test drugs faster.
As New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis spoke about the opening of training camp, steep, tree-covered mountains were in full view behind them.
The family of fallen cyclist Lon Lomas is speaking out after the release this week of the man charged with his death.
"The solutions are obvious: undo consolidation, or amend the charter to make this hybrid attempt at a new form of government work better."
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is considering whether to get involved in a lawsuit against Gov. Bobby Jindal for his attempts to undermine use of the Common Core education standards in Louisiana's public schools.
The latest meeting of a south Louisiana flood board that stirred political turmoil with a lawsuit against the oil and gas industry is taking place amid uncertainty over the future of the lawsuit — and the board's own membership.
The photos taken nearly a mile under the Gulf of Mexico are so clear that small holes are visible in a lifeboat that may have gone down or been scuttled when a passenger ship was sunk by a Nazi submarine in 1942.
Advocate columnist and Jindal shill Quin Hillyer has been against the New Orleans levee board lawsuit from day one, but a recent piece targeting author/activist John Barry prompted the perfect rebuttal from the board’s former vice-president, who takes Hillyer to task on just about every distorted claim he’s made on the issue.
Thousands of people who bought health insurance through the marketplace created by the federal health care overhaul face price hikes next year that could top 10 percent.
Louisiana fell one spot in an annual national ranking of child well-being that looks at poverty, education and health access.
A federal judge has decided he doesn't need to hear more arguments in the case of a gay couple who want a Louisiana marriage license.
Saints again bring playoff aspirations into 2014 campaign.
New details in the case against the man arrested for last week’s bomb threat and bank robbery has surfaced, including a MidSouth Bank surveillance video showing the alleged suspect attempt an early-morning bank robbery.
Parents and teachers who support the Common Core education standards sued Gov. Bobby Jindal Tuesday over his actions against the multi-state standards, accusing him of illegally meddling in education policy.
An arrest was announced this morning in connection with last week’s bomb scare at UL Lafayette.
Attorneys, judges and others interviewed by LaPolitics expect 15 to 20 district judge races this year.
"I feel like I'm under siege," an attorney said recently over drinks at Galatoire's Bistro in Baton Rouge. "We all do. Every time I turn around somebody wants a check. District attorney races. The judges. They're killing us."
As a requirement for running for Congress in the 6th District, former Gov. Edwin Edwards has filed his financial disclosure statement with the U.S. House showing his income in 2013 totaling $242,787.
Unlike those swindled by Bernie Madoff, the victims of Texas businessman Robert Allen Stanford’s Ponzi scheme won’t be getting any relief from the Securities Investor Protection Corp.’s emergency fund after a recent appellate court ruling.
The legal challenge is part of a continuing struggle over Common Core, which has become controversial since the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted the standards in 2010.