Since the late 1800s, LSU’s status within Louisiana has been secure. It’s the unchallenged big dog, easily the largest and best-performing public university in the Pelican State.

But the Tiger brand has less cachet elsewhere. Across America, LSU is best known for its perennially formidable football team and its dependable ranking as one of the nation’s top “party schools.”

Academics? Research? Not so much.

A dozen years ago, the university’s leaders took a long look in the mirror and decided it was time to change all that. They envisioned a flagship institution that scholars would take seriously. They dreamed LSU would one day join the ranks of the Association of American Universities, a who’s-who of top research institutions that includes elite private schools such as Harvard, Yale and Duke, as well as celebrated public peers like the University of Florida, the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M.

The resulting multiyear “Flagship Agenda” was focused on boosting LSU’s prestige. The No. 1 priority of the oft-quoted blueprint was that the school would hire a minimum of 150 top-notch research faculty.

“There was an excitement of where we could go and what we could do,” said William Jenkins, who has served as LSU chancellor and as system president and is now retired. “It was a wonderful spirit.”

But the goals were never met, in part because cuts in state aid became a rite of spring starting in 2009. Over the past few years, instead of trying to burnish LSU’s brand, university officials have spent much of their time trying to simply contain the damage to it.

Compared with its fellow Louisiana schools, LSU has little to complain about. Enrollment is up; average ACT scores are up; spending is up. Among the state’s 14 four-year public universities, LSU is the only one that has seen its overall revenue go up appreciably since 2008, thanks to dramatic increases in tuition and fees. A handful of its peers have been gashed.

But being spared the ax, relatively speaking, has hardly led to a celebratory mood in Tigertown.

On LSU’s graceful campus, with its distinctive Spanish-style architecture and sprawling live oaks, talk often turns to the dozens of top researchers and faculty members who have left for greener pastures amid the uncertainty of recent years, taking with them millions in research grants and contracts.

The hope that LSU might shoot up in the prestige sweepstakes seems quaint today: LSU is now ranked No. 129 on U.S. News & World Report’s often criticized but still coveted annual list of the nation’s best universities. That’s one spot up from where it was in 2008.

“Have our goals been realized? I don’t think anyone can honestly say they have been,” said Jenkins, who came out of retirement in 2012 to serve as interim chancellor and president again for a year before F. King Alexander was hired. “We could have been so much further ahead.”

An ambitious vision

The Flagship Agenda was unveiled in 2003, with the expectation that hiring and academic benchmarks would be met by 2010. Part of the plan was to keep enrollment below 30,000 students to make LSU more selective.

But instead of steadily growing budgets — and higher per-student spending — LSU saw its state support start to shrink in 2009 amid a national recession. The cuts would become an annual ritual, and instead of ticking off steps on its to-do list, LSU’s administration had to focus on playing defense. And administrators started increasing enrollment to offset state budget cuts with tuition.

“While it was very important for us to think about where we wanted to be in the future, the budget cuts were so drastic that it wasn’t realistic to spend your time planning,” said John Maxwell Hamilton, who served as LSU provost and executive vice chancellor from 2010 to 2012, when the school absorbed huge cuts in state aid. “It wasn’t possible to spend your time thinking about where you would go when you were really thinking about what you could preserve.”

Since the cuts began, state appropriations to the flagship have been cut by more than half, from $250 million to roughly $120 million in the last fiscal year. (That number was boosted slightly in the current year.)

Like every other institution in the state, LSU has made up most of the difference with tuition hikes. Seven years ago, LSU got 58 percent of its money from state taxpayers, with most of the rest coming from fees and tuition. Now, the state contributes only about a quarter of LSU’s budget.

Stafford Palmieri, who was deputy chief of staff and then commissioner of administration for Gov. Bobby Jindal, said the state’s cutbacks reflect national trends. She categorically rejected the notion that LSU has been hurt.

“It’s wrong to argue that the state has somehow given up on the Flagship Agenda or that LSU is in worse shape than it was, based on the fact that they’re graduating more students now,” she said.

With the school relying so much on tuition, LSU had to abandon the idea of capping its enrollment and becoming more selective.

“Students have never been more important … because campuses such as ours are watching the state ultimately dwindle on its overall long-term support of the university,” Alexander said, adding that it’s a balancing act to make sure the school doesn’t take in more students than it can handle.

Less bang for buck

It’s debatable whether the cuts in state aid have diminished LSU’s overall quality.

But it’s undeniable that LSU students are paying far more to attend than they used to: The price of attendance is double today what it was before the cuts began in 2007.

“Students had their tuition increased, but they didn’t get more for their money,” said Hamilton, also the founding dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication. “I think LSU’s tuition needed to be raised — but so we could improve quality. That’s what we had an opportunity to do and couldn’t.”

Although it’s difficult to measure educational quality objectively, some commonly cited yardsticks are trending in the wrong direction.

LSU had an average of 20 students for each faculty member in 2009. Now, that ratio is up to 22-to-1. And it can be much worse in high-demand classes like petroleum engineering, where the average has jumped as high as 80 students for each professor in recent years. In the business school, there are 35 students per faculty member.

Ohio State University, a flagship LSU leaders often aspire to emulate, has a 19-1 student-faculty ratio. University of Georgia’s is 17-to-1; at both the University of Florida and the University of Alabama, the ratio is 21-to-1.

The growing ratios have a simple explanation. As tuition dollars become increasingly important, LSU has admitted more students to bring in revenue, even as it has had to trim instructional faculty. Enrollment at the flagship has grown about 13 percent since the cuts began.

At strong research universities, graduate students typically make up about 30 percent of the student body, Jenkins said. Achieving that level was a goal of the original Flagship Agenda. But almost all of LSU’s growth has been made up of undergraduates. Since 2008, graduate enrollment has hardly budged, and today, graduate students make up only 16 percent of LSU’s enrollment — about half the benchmark LSU hoped to reach and a smaller proportion than the school had in 2008.

More money, fewer options

Even as tuition has climbed, LSU has been forced to pull back on some course offerings and even degree programs.

In 2011, the university cut bachelor’s degrees in Latin, German and women’s and gender studies. Master’s degrees in educational technology leadership and geography also were eliminated.

LSU also ditched other language offerings, including courses in Russian, Portuguese and Swahili, at a time when students are being told to prepare for a more-global economy.

Although none of the junked programs was large, the unexpected changes threw a wrench into many students’ plans.

“My whole high school career was spent preparing to major in Latin and go on to teach,” said Melody Rowe, who received a full ride to LSU. “My whole world changed when they announced the budget cuts. I was lost and scrambled to find something else to do.”

Rowe, who had participated in the National Latin Honor Society, said she wound up enlisting in the U.S. Army a year after the program was cut as a sophomore so she could study cybersecurity at the University of Maryland.

Ultimately, people enrolled in the degree programs were told they could finish them. But Rowe said it was too late by then.

“No one knew what would happen beyond spring 2011, and by that time, 13 faculty had already been let go, including my first Latin professor at LSU,” Rowe said. “It was frustrating, very confusing and caused me extreme anxiety.”

A demoralized faculty

LSU’s faculty has shrunk by 12 percent since 2008, even as the student body has grown by about the same proportion. Faculty leaders and university officials say the school may need 400 more instructors — an increase of nearly a quarter.

“Morale is abysmal,” said Faculty Senate President Kevin Cope, an English literature professor at LSU for 32 years. “Some people have simply decided to lay low and hope that everything will be OK, but other people are scrambling frantically to see what other job it is that they might have.”

The scramble has led some to move on, including top researchers and star faculty members.

Eli Jones, former dean of the E.J. Ourso College of Business, arrived in 2008 and quickly found himself feeling trapped.

“I’m a builder. I like to grow things, and I’m a better offensive player than a defensive player,” said Jones, who recently became the business dean at Texas A&M. “While I was (at LSU), I was playing a lot of defense and spending an inordinate amount of time defending the units in my college from being closed.”

Jones oversaw the completion of a new $60 million business education complex, paid for with a mix of public and private money. He stayed with LSU through the ribbon-cutting in 2012 but left before the building was ready. The massive construction project should have been thrilling, but Jones said he was constantly battling low faculty morale and watching helplessly as professors quit and class sizes increased.

“It was a real struggle,” he said. “In addition to being an administrator, I was also teaching classes because I didn’t have enough faculty to teach.”

Jones left LSU for the University of Arkansas, where he stayed from 2012 to July 2015 — and where he never endured a single budget cut.

Grants lost

When faculty members depart, in addition to leaving a void in the classroom, they often take money away from the university.

Many professors, particularly in the science, engineering and technology fields, bring in tens of thousands of dollars of research grants from the federal government and private organizations.

The grants and contracts, administered through the university, can sometimes help cover the cost of other school operations, such as salaries, equipment and research materials.

It takes years for a young professor to develop into a rainmaker. When prestigious faculty researchers leave LSU, they take their grant money with them.

This past year, LSU took in $134 million in grants and contracts — the lowest amount since 2005. In 2009, when state funding was close to its peak, the awards reached their zenith of $156 million; they have declined every year since.

Kevin Carman, dean of the College of Science from 2004 until 2012, said he, like Jones, watched many of his top faculty leave as a result of the annual cuts. He finally left, too.

“They didn’t see a prospect for better times ahead; that in turn leads to many faculty looking for other opportunities,” said Carman, now provost of the University of Nevada, Reno. “Some of the highest-achieving, high-quality faculty certainly did leave because of that.”

Carman came to LSU in 1989, and he watched proudly as the university built a reputation as a serious research institute. His last few years at LSU had a much different feel.

“Up until the budget cuts began, the university was moving in a very positive trajectory, and our national and international reputation was growing. We were attracting people,” he said. “It takes time to build an outstanding research institution, but it doesn’t take much time at all to tear it down.”

Hidden upsides

Even with the challenges, LSU has managed to avoid significant disruptions to the student experience.

And paradoxically, perhaps, some student metrics are improving: Graduation rates, retention rates and average ACT scores are all up compared with years that preceded the budget cuts.

Indirectly, the ever-larger profile of the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students scholarships likely has helped LSU retain the cream of the state’s crop of students.

Although Louisiana has had some of the steepest tuition increases in the nation during the Jindal years, college tuition all over the nation has been spiraling. That has put many private schools, as well as out-of-state public ones, out of reach for many students.

TOPS, because it covers 100 percent of tuition at public universities in Louisiana, is making all of those schools more attractive to in-state students. And it’s likely driving more of Louisiana’s best students to the state’s premier public school than once was the case.

“TOPS has definitely helped keep really strong students at LSU, and tuition increases have only made the TOPS scholarship that much more valuable,” said Barry Erwin, president of the watchdog group Council for a Better Louisiana.

Financially, too, LSU has fared better than any other four-year institution in the state. It’s the only one that has a bigger budget today than in 2008.

“We’re doing a good job staying afloat under these circumstances,” Alexander said. “But we haven’t gained ground on our peers. We’ve lost more ground than we’ve gained.”

He noted that while LSU is treading water financially, LSU’s national peers are continuing to grow both financially and in prestige.

LSU is spending $12,818 per student — less than 45 states’ flagships. The only ones that spend less are the universities of Arkansas, Nebraska, Georgia and Montana.

And some schools LSU aspires to compete with spend far more — Ohio State spends $24,090 per student, for instance. Closer to home, LSU lags well behind Southeastern Conference rivals like the University of Florida, which spends $18,646 per student, and the University of Alabama, which spends $15,906 per student.

Officials in the Jindal administration say LSU is still on the upswing, citing increasing graduation rates and $179 million in infrastructure investments on LSU’s campus, including the new business education complex, $25 million for a new chemistry lab building and a $55 million expansion of the Patrick F. Taylor Hall engineering building.

At the same time, the flagship campus has $509 million in deferred maintenance projects, which is more than the combined backlog for the 12 campuses in the Southern University and University of Louisiana systems. Many faculty and students in older buildings complain of leaky pipes, peeling paint on the walls, aged and damaged furniture and stained carpet.

LSU mass communication professor Bob Mann, an outspoken Jindal critic, chronicles the decay in his widely read blog. A recent post noted that the Dalrymple Building doesn’t have hot water.

Jindal aides defend their record, saying the flagship still provides a tremendous value.

“LSU is in a better place than it was eight years ago,” Palmieri said, saying policy changes have created a stronger, more efficiently run school.

“I can’t make money grow on trees, and the budget is the budget. But keeping LSU (budget) flat was always a priority.”

Damage still being assessed

Hamilton, the former provost, said the impact of the cuts has yet to be fully measured.

He thinks most improvements are rooted in the positive steps taken after the Flagship Agenda was laid out, before the budget cuts began.

“For years, we had people working on that in terms of attracting the right kinds of students. If you put a policy into place, you don’t see the results until five, six, seven years later,” Hamilton said. “Bobby Jindal’s legacy is not about what LSU looks like today. It will be what it looks like in five years when he’s gone and is able to claim he had no responsibility.”

Alexander says it’s paramount for state leaders to not just simply stop the cuts but to restore some of the missing money — something Gov. John Bel Edwards has promised to do, although he’ll have to hunt for money amid a budget crisis.

One way in which public universities, particularly flagships competing on a national stage, have coped with cuts is to enroll more out-of-state students because they pay substantially higher tuitions. Right now, LSU takes less than 20 percent of its students from out of state; Alexander thinks the university could goose that up to 30 percent, as long as the school continues to grow.

But he wants to avoid the temptation to go too far: Half the students at the University of Alabama come from out of state, he noted. Worse, the University of Colorado has so many students from California that its student bookstore sells sweatshirts that say “University of California at Boulder.”

The primary mission of a public university should be to educate students from the state that supports it, Alexander said. That’s a moral imperative as well as a financial one, in his view. Because out-of-state students are less likely to stay in Louisiana, the state gets much less in the long run out of its investment, he said.

“People are benefiting from more and more people getting an education — they’re just not wanting to pay for it,” Alexander said. “We need to expect to compete with the Ohio States of the world on every front and have the same expectations we do for academics as we do on the football field.”

Cutting Class: Higher Education in Louisiana

Special report, Part 1: How startling, unique cuts have transformed Louisiana's universities

Special report, Part 2: Once geared toward poor, black students, now major shift in TOPS beneficiaries

Special report, Part 3: Don't forget student fees; here's why they're rising even faster than tuition at Louisiana universities

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter @rebekahallen.