Wednesday, August 18, 2010
Written by Walter Pierce

UL Lafayette is planning for the future by preparing for the worst.

Charitably, let’s think of tomorrow’s public policy forum in Baton Rouge hosted by the League of Women Voters as the end of the beginning of higher education in Louisiana, rather than the beginning of the end. At the table will be the presidents of the LSU, UL and Southern University systems as well as the head of the state’s community and technical college system. They’ll be there to discuss the long-term effects of the 2010 budget cuts, which followed a similarly painful round of cuts in 2009 and will almost surely precede more cuts next year. Higher ed and health care have become a sort of rainy day fund that lawmakers use via funding reductions to help balance the budget. But for the grace of the stimulus act, those cuts would have undoubtedly been more severe this year.

I say the end of the beginning because higher education is not going away, but the pressure on university budgets through cuts from the state is changing the dynamic in which they operate. Expect the elimination of more degree programs — UL lost its philosophy degree program last year — as well as a reduction in the workforce.

UL isn’t waiting until next year to find out what its budget reductions will be or how it will proceed as an institution; the administration has begun a review process with the deans of the colleges to create what amounts to worst-case-scenario disaster planning: how to handle a 5-percent, 10-percent or 20-percent cut in funding.

UL Provost Steve Landry says higher ed funding in the near term depends on federal stimulus money, or a lack thereof, but, as the saying goes, forewarned is forearmed. “It’s going to be a full systemic review, and I think it’s unlikely that our strategy would be, ‘O, let’s cut every department 20 percent.’ That’s not the best logic,” Landry says. “The best logic is to look at what’s your strength and what’s your future look like, what do you really want to go after as an institution and a community and then maybe some departments can help us with 20 percent, and maybe I eliminate a unit in the worst-case scenario. I’m trying to take a very strategic approach to this and not just say, ‘We’re going to cut everybody 20 percent.’”

Already on their heels due to proposed changes within the UL System that would make it easier to discontinue academic programs and lay off tenured professors, some faculty members interpreted the review process as a threat, and rumors that draconian cuts were imminent began to circulate.

While faculty positions at UL appear to be safe for at least the current fiscal year, professors have cause for alarm. More budget reductions will come, and in a state like Louisiana where conservatism and its greasy-haired bedfellow, anti-intellectualism, are prominent, the perception that university professors are a bunch of namby-pamby liberals with cushy jobs remains a dangerous undercurrent.

Many outside of higher ed and an increasingly sober number within acknowledge that Louisiana might have too many four-year colleges. But which city in this state will magnanimously step forward and offer to close its university or to severely curtail its scope? Each of us will fight for our local college; it’s critical to our local economy.

UL Lafayette is the second-largest university in the state — a city within our city with an annual budget of roughly $150 million (and shrinking), making it the third largest enterprise in the parish behind consolidated government and the public school system. With about 16,000 students and 2,100 faculty members, it would be the 17th largest city in the state were it to incorporate and secede from Lafayette.

UL also supports about 7,800 non-university jobs, bringing its employment value to Lafayette to about 10,000 jobs. Reductions to higher education in Louisiana hurt us in very practical ways. As a sign at a protest by university professionals in New Orleans last spring put it: Some cuts don’t heal.

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