When University of Louisiana at Lafayette President Joseph Savoie stepped into his new job in 2008, state funding for higher education in Louisiana had reached a historical peak.
It’s been in free fall ever since.
Years of cuts have left UL-Lafayette with roughly half the state support it had just seven years ago, forcing administrators to focus tightly on the university’s core academic mission while off-loading responsibility for student housing, parking, the bookstore, athletics and other auxiliary services. Meanwhile, just like their peers at other campuses, they’ve forced students to take on increases in tuition and fees that have nearly doubled over the past seven years.
The net result is that the university now has to make do with about $9 million less than it had in 2008, an overall cut of about 6 percent. While that may sound grim, only LSU and Louisiana Tech have fared better among Louisiana’s four-year universities.
Savoie and his staff have been commended for avoiding the layoffs, furloughs and deep cuts seen at some other state universities in recent years, but there is widespread concern about the ability of students to pay for an ever-increasing share of their education.
Savoie, who served as state commissioner of higher education before his move to UL-Lafayette, does not relish the balancing act, even if he’s proven adept at it.
“You have to improve your schools. You have to make colleges more attractive, affordable and productive. You don’t get there by cutting them,” he said.
While UL-Lafayette faces challenges, it’s in better shape than some other Louisiana universities. In part, that’s because the cuts have been offset somewhat by rising enrollment, and in part, Savoie said, it’s because his administration recognized early on that the first round of cuts likely was the beginning of a long, dark period for higher education funding in Louisiana.
Even in 2008, when times were relatively flush, university officials opted to keep recurring expenses in check, anticipating that any additions to the budget would end in painful cuts, said the school’s vice president of administration and finance, Jerry Luke LeBlanc, who also is a former legislator and state commissioner of administration under former Gov. Kathleen Blanco.
“If that money would have been poured into the general operating account, increasing your expenditure base, while at the same time you’re being cut, that only would have compounded the problem,” LeBlanc said. “So that strategic decision we made early on not to do that is what allowed us to protect the academic core and not have a bloodletting in the academic side.”
But times have been lean.
Some academic programs were merged and others eliminated, including undergraduate programs in sustainable agriculture, fashion design and art education and the graduate program in cognitive science.
Budgets for travel and equipment were cut. Salaries were frozen from 2009 to 2013.
Faculty numbers, though, have remained stable.
“We never did layoffs. We never did furloughs. We kind of built a wall around the academic stuff and pushed everything else to become more self-sufficient or just generating revenue,” Savoie said.
He said custodial services and food services were outsourced, and professional management was brought in to overhaul operations at the university bookstore. Athletics relies more heavily on donors, though it still gets a healthy subsidy, and funding for the university’s public radio station, KRVS, has been phased out.
Parking is now expected to cover its own expenses, and student rent at the new residence halls is structured to cover the debt for construction and long-term maintenance.
Savoie said services and programs not directly tied to the school’s core academic mission were put on timelines to become self-sufficient.
Some have been successful, he said, and others still struggle.
“When the state was paying for most of it, we were operating these things. When the state stopped paying for it and we had to pay for it ourselves, we began to manage it,” Savoie said.
Many professors give Savoie and his staff credit for navigating the uncertain waters.
“I think we feel like the university administration is doing the best they can with the resources they have,” said biology professor Lewis Deaton, who has taught at the school since 1987 and serves as president of the Faculty Senate.
Deaton said class sizes and teaching loads have remained manageable in his department, but he has noticed the impact of smaller budgets for equipment.
“The lecture halls really have ancient computers,” he said.
Hector LaSala, a 40-year veteran of the university who teaches in the School of Architecture and Design, said he too has been impressed with Savoie’s administration.
“I think the president moved very quickly,” LaSala said. “He anticipated that the university had to be more proactive.”
But Deaton and LaSala both fear the steady drip of cuts has made it harder to recruit new professors.
“It has also tainted our reputation nationwide, and it might have hurt us in attracting teachers,” said LaSala, who is the chairman of his department’s search committee. “I’m also concerned about the young ones (professors) who may not feel secure. And they have the credentials to go somewhere else.”
Another worry is rising tuition.
“There is a lot of concern among the faculty that we have transferred our burden to the backs of students,” Deaton said.
Students say they have felt the effects, taking on more loans or extra work shifts to cover bills for tuition and fees that have risen every year.
“It went from me being able to decline a few of my loans to having to take all of them,” said Teddi Kolarich, a senior broadcasting major from Indiana. “And because I have work-study, I can’t work more hours. I have to just take out more loans, sadly.”
Tiffany McFatter, a sophomore in speech pathology from Lake Charles, said she has been forced to take on more hours at work.
“My parents don’t pay for my tuition, so I had to pick up extra shifts,” she said.
Savoie said he sympathizes with the students but still believes UL-Lafayette is a bargain.
“If you compare us to similar schools, even with the significant increases that we’ve had, and we’ve gone up 10 percent a year for the last five years, even with that, we are still relatively low,” Savoie said. “I don’t think it should be higher, but I don’t know that we can provide services without the revenue. So we have to come up with ways to generate revenue, at the same time protecting those who are most vulnerable through scholarships, which is a private-school model.”
Deaton, the biology professor, said the shift in state higher education policy has taken Louisiana back in time, toward an era when only the well-to-do could obtain a college education.
“We are sort of going back to where we were in the 1890s,” he said.
Savoie said he is keenly aware that some students — especially those of limited means — could be left out if the current trend continues, but he is not counting on higher education funding being restored any time soon.
“We’re approaching this like we are moving to a private-school model. We are planning for being 90 percent self-sufficient,” Savoie said.
Acadiana Advocate contributing writer Holly Duchman contributed to this report.