Tolerance of fraternity hazing that led to one student’s death received national attention. So did the building of a “floating river” on campus in the shape of the school’s initials. The Wall Street Journal had this to say recently about this boondoggle. “There may be no better symbol of American higher education wasteful indulgence then Louisiana State University’s lazy River.”
The latest hit is a report form Kiplinger’s financial magazine published just last week citing how public universities rank when it comes to academic quality and getting “the best bang for your buck.” LSU ranked at 270th, far behind every other SEC school with the exception of Mississippi State. So what’s happened to cause such a dramatic demise?
Huey Long was the best friend and supporter LSU ever had as he force-fed LSU with increasing appropriations. The Kingfish made no bones about his long-term goals for the state’s flagship university. “LSU’s going to be the Harvard of the South.”
LSU’s significant relevance as an educational pillar continued into the 1950s. Prominent writers like 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 praise for Louisiana nationwide. But that was then. 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 60s came along 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 autopilot 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 their case of why a flagship university was, and is today, critical to the economic well-being and future of the state.
UNC is listed as the number one college in the new Kiplinger report. In North Carolina, there is one board for higher education. The centergy is around the flagship, my alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When Louisiana’s constitutional convention was held in 1973, LSU was nowhere to be found, as it should have been, to lobby for a single college board. So now we have every college in the current four board system pushing to be a little LSU.
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 its leadership has not made the commitment to accentuate its best and brightest.
Louisiana is at a crossroads. If the state’s leadership does 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.