Thursday, July 3rd, 2013
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
A New President’s Challenge: Dealing with the Rise and Fall of LSU
Louisiana State University, located in my hometown of Baton Rouge, takes on a new president this week. And to say that he has a big job ahead of him is an understatement. Educationally, the state’s largest university is a mixed bag of quality and mediocrity, typical of many public universities. And there’s nothing like being in Tiger Stadium on a football Saturday night. But when it comes to national rankings, and raising money for its endowment, LSU continues to be at the low-end, even among schools in the Southeast Conference.
Dr. F. King Alexander, the new president comes from California State University in Long Beach, where he was popular, proactive, and controversial. When it came to funding for Long Beach, he made no bones about taking on the California legislature, and he did so with great success. However, he will quickly find that politicians in California are a piece of cake compared to the shenanigans he will have to deal with at the state capital in Baton Rouge. He will also discover that LSU, once the centerpiece of higher education throughout the South, is now fighting for relevant academic survival.
Huey Long was the best friend and supporter LSU ever had. The Virginia Quarterly Review called him the father of the modern LSU and said, “Huey stroked LSU as if he had been coddling a newborn pet elephant. During fiscal stringency in all other American states, Huey force-fed LSU with increasing appropriations.” The Kingfish made no secret of his long-term goals for the state’s flagship university. “LSU’s going to be the Harvard of the South,” he said.
LSU’s 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 place for major literary figures. The Southern Historical Association began publishing its Journal of Southern History as well as the highly 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 drop its mantel of excellence, not just nationally, but right here in the Deep South?
In the 60s, education became the key to survival for other southern states that did not have the huge reservoirs of oil and gas that was bountiful 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 education became less relevant. And that’s when politics came into the mix. Continue Reading……………