That’s the advice LSU President and Chancellor F. King Alexander has given to students who oppose what could become deep cuts to state higher education funding in the coming year.
“Sometimes, you don’t have to be so polite. This is a time when you need to fight,” Alexander said.
By all appearances, Alexander isn’t shying away from following his own advice.
This week, Alexander will appear at the Baton Rouge Press Club on Monday and the Rotary Club on Wednesday. It’s the latest in his campaign against what could be a dramatic hit to higher education funding as the state grapples with a $1.6 billion funding shortfall.
In addition to the student forum, Alexander recently traveled to Lafayette to speak to the Acadiana Press Club, where he warned of the “cartoonlike numbers” that colleges and universities face when it comes to state funding. He has spoken to business and alumni groups in recent weeks, in addition to regular meetings with state officials and higher education leaders.
As Louisiana leaders try to craft a state budget for the fiscal year that will begin July 1, Alexander has emerged as one of the loudest voices warning against the possible budget impact on Louisiana’s colleges and universities — and what that would mean for the future of our state.
He doesn’t mince words. Discussing the worst-case scenario — a nearly 80 percent hit to state funding — Alexander told students that if that happened, “We may not even be open in August.”
It’s a sharp departure from those who try to downplay the budget situation.
“This has been a daily ongoing discussion,” Alexander said at a recent LSU Board of Supervisors meeting. “Our agendas have been reconstructed — completely.”
Alexander, who previously served as president of California State University at Long Beach, came into power under a newly created, powerful dual role leading the state’s flagship public university less than two years ago. He was picked under a secretive process by a board whose majority was itself hand-picked by Gov. Bobby Jindal.
As he rounded out his first year on the job, Alexander praised Jindal’s administration and was praised, in return, as a key ally. The first legislative session of his tenure saw colleges and universities spared from deep cuts to state funding for the first time in six years. He worked with Jindal’s administration to champion the creation of the Workforce Investment for a Stronger Economy, or WISE, Fund, which would let colleges tap into additional money meant to enhance workforce development and create several new professor positions in important fields at LSU, including engineering.
He hasn’t directly targeted the administration or legislators, despite an executive budget recommendation from Jindal that left a $211 million gap in funding for higher ed, and even that is heavily dependent on a still-controversial tax credit scheme. If the plan to roll back refundable tax credits fails, the hit to higher education would swell well past half a billion dollars.
“We know the Governor’s Office and our legislative leaders don’t want to see this happen,” Alexander said. But, “we don’t even know how we could handle a cut of this kind.”
While not directly at odds, he’s also not shying away from comments directed at the state’s priorities and the long-term future of higher education.
Jindal’s administration has frequently touted cuts to state funding — across-the-board — as being more efficient. Jindal, who is considering a run for president in 2016, has often noted how many industries have been lured to Louisiana during his tenure and the impact on the state’s economy.
“It’s not how many companies come to the state, how many exports you’re shipping out,” Alexander said of priorities.
He said that he thinks the state should see higher education as an investment into something more innovative that could not only meet workforce demands, but create the next Silicon Valley.
“You are the greatest economic asset we have. ... You’ll be creating industries that haven’t even been dreamed of,” he said. “You guys are not expenditures — you’re investments.”
Alexander has spent meetings urging students and alumni to take a larger part in the legislative session that begins April 13. Student groups, as well as a newly formed alumni group called Tiger Advocates, plan to be a force at the Capitol this session.
The worst-case scenario, as Alexander puts it, would mean that the state would provide the equivalent of about half the funding it contributes to the Baton Rouge campus. And that’s it. That hypothetical disregards LSU’s other three campuses, health sciences or agriculture outreach endeavors.
“If that goes through, it’s not only historic to Louisiana, it’s the largest for any state since these numbers have been tracked,” he said, referencing surveys that trace back to 1963.
That worst-case scenario is an 86 percent cut to funding for LSU.
“We don’t anticipate that happening, but somewhere between zero and 86 (percent), we have a lot to do,” Alexander said.
While he’s quick to note what could happen to Louisiana under that scenario, Alexander also acknowledges that state funding likely won’t be as devastating as it could be. “A number of promising ideas are being discussed and contemplated,” he said.
Alexander has been praised by LSU Board members, even as they appear to tamp down his drastic rhetoric.
“Our administration has been working tirelessly to help the legislators and governor,” board member Hank Danos said.
Danos took a decidedly more positive take on the situation, despite Alexander’s earlier assertion that the prospective outcome would be “unprecedented.”
“I’m optimistic and I know some of my board members feel the same,” Danos said. “This process is difficult, but it’s not unusual and so unique we haven’t had these types of discussions in the past.”
Said board member Rolfe McCollister: “I believe if there’s a will, there’s a way, and people are committed to finding solutions.”
Alexander quipped back that there is always “divine intervention.”