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The LSU professor who helped ignite arguments around the school's new football locker room and other improvements said Tuesday the issue points up how athletics trumps academics in Louisiana.

"It seems to me that academics are even less important to us than they were 20 years ago," said Robert Mann, professor of mass communications at LSU and a veteran of the political arena himself.

"We have largely abandoned higher education in this state compared to where we were 20 years ago," said Mann, who worked for former Gov. Kathleen Blanco and U.S. Sen. Russell Long, both Democrats.

What sparked the bickering was the announcement that LSU was opening a nearly $28 million Football Operations and Performance Nutrition Center, including a state-of-the-art football locker room.

The work was financed with private dollars from the Tiger Athletic Foundation, which supports athletics, and former football players.

LSU officials said TAF, like other support groups, is fulfilling its mission.

"We are excited about the renovation of the LSU Football Operations and Performance Nutrition Center along with all the great facilities we've been able to update recently across campus," Ernie Ballard, a spokesman for the school, said in an email.

Ballard noted that no student tuition dollars, fees or state dollars were used to pay for the center.

Former star Tyrann Mathieu helped finance the Football Operations Center and the Mathieu Players Lounge.

"Not only did we donate money for a new facility, I also started a scholarship fund as well," Mathieu tweeted on Tuesday.

"I can see a lot of people are in their feelings about what I choose to do with my money," he wrote. "Please read the entire print."

Roger Neustadter, a part-time resident of New Orleans who was traveling in Italy on Tuesday, noted that LSU is one of the few schools with self-sustaining athletic programs.

"If athletics are self-supporting and people choose to donate $ to it rather than to academics that is their choice whether we agree or not," Neustadter said in an email.

But after a decade of higher education cuts at LSU and other schools, and a backlog of capital needs, the announcement has re-ignited arguments about state support for academics.

The Chronicle of Higher Education did a  story with the headline, "LSU Just Unveiled a $28 Million Football Facility, The Flood-Damaged Library is Still Decrepit."

'We just have to do better': Gov. John Bel Edwards notes neglect as he, lawmakers tour LSU library

The reference is to Middleton Library, which is plagued by water leaks and other issues.

Mann said the headline "accurately reflects the fact that this state values athletics more than academics."


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Said Mann, "I am not begrudging athletics for what they can raise money for and build."

"I just think that it highlights this massive disparity on campus, this best of times/worst of times situation that we have," he said.

Academic fundraising through the LSU Foundation has long trailed dollars raised by the TAF.

The Advocate reported in 2016 that, in a typical year, athletic donations total about $45 million compared to about $41 million for the LSU Foundation.

Of the nine schools in the Southeastern Conference with separate foundations for athletics and academics LSU was the lone school where athletics outpaced aid for the classroom.

School officials said that trend has since changed.

In March LSU launched a $1.5 billion fundraising drive.

"Many of the fundraising priorities in the $1.5 billion "Fierce for the Future Campaign" focus on increasing scholarship funding, supporting faculty and investing in programs and facilities that drive innovation," the foundation said in an email.

Backers of TAF contend that, for LSU to be competitive in football and other sports, a source of private fund-raising is essential.

TAF dollars help finance scholarships, the maintenance of Mike the Tiger's habitat and even the east upper deck of Tiger Stadium. The organization also donated $11.8 million to the academic side in 2017 and helped defray costs for over 450 athletes, according to the most recent tax filings.

Ballard said TAF benefits athletics "and their donors give to TAF with that goal in mind."

"Other foundations at LSU raise funds for academics and academic facilities, such as the recently-completed Patrick F. Taylor Hall, the finest engineering building in the country; renovated the French House, home to our Honors College and the new Business Education Complex," he said.

TAF leaders did not respond to a request for comment.

Catherine McKinney, a rising senior from St. Francisville who plans to attend law school, said the state Legislature should pay more attention to the academic side of the school.

"When LSU comes around and says they are having a budget shortfall just a few weeks ago and then TAF slaps $28 million on an athletic facility it is a little frustrating to students in the library that has flood damage," McKinney said.


Email Will Sentell @wsentell@theadvocate.com.