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Memorial Tower on Louisiana State University's campus on June 14, 2018.

A group headed by a member of the Board of Regents blasted LSU President F. King Alexander on Tuesday for the university’s recent decision to stop automatically disqualifying applicants who score too low on college board admissions tests like the ACT.

“We must stop King Alexander from lowering standards at LSU!” a group called Put Louisiana First stated on its Facebook page, complete with a photo of Alexander wearing a crown.

“It took years of dedicated effort to raise LSU's average ACT score for admitted freshmen from below 20 to 27. This is an incredible increase. … For many years high performing students left for other state Flagship Universities never to return. Now students with the skills to build a bright future for Louisiana are remaining in state to contribute.”

“I hate to see King Alexander tear all of that down; that’s my personal opinion,” Richard Lipsey, a longtime member of the Board of Regents, said in an interview with The Advocate on Tuesday.

Still, the changes were the main topic of conversation among influential donors and higher education policymakers attending the LSU football game Sunday in Dallas, Lipsey said. Many of the leaders learned of LSU’s admission shift from a Sunday article in The Advocate.

“I don’t want to speak for anyone else,” Lipsey said, “but 10 or 11 of them agreed with me.”

Lipsey heads Put Louisiana First, which filed formation papers with the state in August. He described the group as one providing information about important issues, such as roads, state finances and, yes, education. He wouldn’t say who is donating money, and the group’s IRS status means he doesn’t have to disclose.

Alexander responded sharply in an email Tuesday. “It seems that there are those that don’t want facts to get in the way of their rumor rants. Fact, LSU entering class this fall is tied for the highest ACT average in history. Tied with last year’s class. The average GPA of this class actually went up from a 3.56 to a 3.64,” he wrote. Noting that most major universities now rely more on essays and recommendations than college board tests, he added, “I accept the criticism that LSU is now acting more like University of Texas Austin, UNC Chapel Hill, the University of Virginia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Harvard, Yale, UCLA and Berkeley. How does this destroy decades of progress?”

“I don’t care if the other institutions around the nation have adopted it,” Lipsey said. The higher standards have attracted better performing students and relaxing the minimum test score requirements could jeopardize the quality of student attending LSU. “We need to recruit those kids and make LSU competitive with Florida, Georgia and Texas,” Lipsey said.

All three of those flagship universities use “holistic admissions.” But Lipsey pointed out that Florida, Georgia and Texas are more populous states and have far more students. LSU’s actions will end up cherry-picking students who otherwise would have gone to one of the statewide schools, like the University of Louisiana at Lafayette or the University of New Orleans, or one of the regional four-year institutions, like Nicholls State or McNeese State, Lipsey added.

After nearly 30 years of rejecting applicants whose ACT failed to meet the minimum, LSU is embracing “holistic admissions.” Greater weight will be put on personal recommendations, student-written essays and outside activities, thereby opening LSU’s doors to students who test poorly but otherwise have good credentials.

A shift from purely objective standards to one requiring more subjectivity is dangerous in a state as politically oriented as Louisiana, Lipsey said. One of the key criticisms to policy nationally is that administrators have used “holistic admissions” cover when admitting the poorly qualified children of big donors and political wheels.

“He is opening the door for chaos,” Lipsey said.

Lipsey said he is not speaking in any official capacity as a member and former chairman of the board that oversees all higher public education systems in the state.

Only the Regents can decide whether LSU can stop requiring applicants to take the ACT. About a thousand universities have gone “test optional,” the most recent being the University of Chicago, one the nation’s top schools.

LSU won’t be one of them.

J. Stephen Perry, chairman of the LSU Board of Supervisors, said Tuesday that ACT scores do matter. But they don’t inform admissions officers of life events, handicaps, financial environment and backgrounds of applicants who didn’t test well but otherwise may be qualified and would likely to do well at LSU. Where once LSU would have to throw away an application with a substandard ACT score, the new concept allows admissions officials to review other factors.

“It ensures that the university has every tool with which to evaluate every student’s potential to excel and not just rely on binary digits of academic proficiency,” Perry said. Though LSU now allows more flexibility on test scores, the overall standards won’t change.

LSU is supposed to be open for a widely diverse population, and there’s plenty of room for everyone, he said. Nobody admitted under the new holistic concept will displace any students with stronger ACT scores, said Perry, who heads the board that oversees policy for the LSU system. “This is a different equation than Harvard or Yale or Brown, where you have a fixed number of slots,” he added.

Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed said in an email: “LSU, like any other public university, can choose to adopt more rigorous standards as long as the Board of Regents minimum is met, as LSU did in this case. The role of Regents moving forward is to audit the final student enrollment information to confirm compliance with the Regents admission requirements.”

Since 2005, when the requirements were established for all state colleges, the Regents have allowed the universities some leeway for a set number of applicants who failed to clear the ACT minimum scores or have grades below the standard. Lipsey said the proper course would have been for LSU to ask Regents to allow more exceptions to the minimums.

Regents Chairman Robert W. Levy said Tuesday, "We are having internal discussions, and we’ll be gathering more information about the proposed changes."


Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.