LSU’s significant relevance as an educational pillar in the South continued into the 1950s. Prominent writers like Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren made the Baton Rouge campus a gathering point for major literary figures. The Southern Historical Association began publishing its Journal of SouthernHistory as well as the long respected Southern Review, all from LSU. And the LSU Press became the publishing beacon for serious fiction and non-fiction rivaled only by the University of North Carolina Press.
Outstanding young academicians in a variety of fields were attracted to Baton Rouge, and the music department produced grand opera accompanied by its own symphony orchestra under directors of international acclaim. The efflorescence of so much creative and academic talent drew accolades for Louisiana nationwide.
But that was then. Along came the 60s and other southern states did not have the huge reservoirs of oil and gas. Education became a key to their survival. But in Louisiana, who cared about having a college degree when an oil field worker with a tenth grade education could make as much or more than many professionals with graduate degrees.
A college degree became less relevant. And that’s when politics came into the mix.
With the economy running on auto pilot in Louisiana and unemployment running way behind other southern states, the cry for “keeping the flagship university strong” fell on deaf legislative ears. Rural legislators were more concerned about beefing local colleges up to LSU status, and even building unneeded new colleges and trade schools. And LSU became its own worst enemy by not aggressively making its case of why a flagship university was, and is today, critical to the economic well-being and future of the state.
What happened in recent years that caused Louisiana State University to be an also ran, not just nationally, but right here in the Deep South? The leadership of LSU made a number of mistakes that allowed it to fall into the fiscal abyss the university finds itself in today. It did not aggressively defend and promote its status as the flagship. I was around the state capitol as an elected official in various capacities trough the 70s, 80s and 90s. LSU was just one of the many education interests lobbying the legislature and the Governor. The university leadership at the time did not consider themselves in any unique category, and so were not given any special deference as the flagship.
Another mistake was the failure to develop a solid endowment plan. LSU could well have the lowest endowment of any major college of its size in the. Successful college endowments grow through investments, and are a significant income source for any major university in the country. Not so at LSU. The Times Picayune reported just this week that “Louisiana's flagship university is dead last among schools in the Southeastern Football Conference when it comes to the rate of alumni giving and the size of the school's endowment.”
James Carville dismissed many of the state’s problems by saying that Louisiana is not just a way of life; “It’s a culture all its own.” But every state has its own special ambiance, or way of life that is unique. Maybe they don’t throw Mardi Gras beads and use Tabasco sauce. Saying Louisiana is “special in its own way” is a cop out if the state’s educational and political leaders have not made the commitment to accentuate its best and brightest.
Louisiana is at a crossroads. If the new governor and state legislature do not work to protect and promote a high degree of excellent achievement at LSU, the best and the brightest students will leave the state or settle for a less challenging education offering them few opportunities in the future. The whole state will suffer from such a loss.
“Half the crowd in Tiger Stadium on a Saturday night can’t even spell LSU.”
Peace and Justice.
Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers throughout the nation and on websites worldwide. You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at http://www.jimbrownusa.com. You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9:00 am till 11:00 am Central Time on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at http://www.jimbrownusa.com.