LSU is embarking on a $110 million renovation and expansion of its main engineering building — one of the school’s largest nonathletic projects ever and yet another indication of Louisiana’s ongoing efforts to meet workforce demands in related fields.
But Gov. Bobby Jindal said Monday that he couldn’t speculate what impact Louisiana’s looming state budget cuts could have on higher education or the state’s $40 million WISE Fund that was created this year to promote programs like engineering.
“At this point, we’re pretty sure we’ll be able to protect our critical investments and our critical priorities,” Jindal said without getting into specifics.
Last week, Jindal’s administration announced that the state must reduce spending for the current budget year by $171 million because of lagging revenues. Typically, higher education has been vulnerable to cuts because of other restrictions to the budget.
On Monday — just days before the budget cuts are expected to be announced — LSU marked the formal groundbreaking of the expansion of Patrick F. Taylor Hall, the campus’ main College of Engineering building, with a celebration that featured Jindal and other leaders. With temperatures hovering in the 40s Monday, planters full of dirt were placed inside to give the groundbreaking’s special guests, including Jindal, LSU Chancellor and President F. King Alexander and philanthropist Phyllis Taylor, the opportunity to “turn dirt” with golden shovels to mark the progress.
Jindal touted LSU’s engineering program — the largest academic college at LSU and the 18th-largest program of its kind in the country — as one of the ways Louisiana is working to meet demands for a skilled workforce and high-paying jobs. “This is the future of our state,” Jindal said.
As he frequently does when talking education, Jindal touted investments in higher education and research efforts.
“This new engineering complex is a great example of one of these investments because not only will it help us train our students for the great engineering and computer science careers in our state, it will also meet the workforce demands of our growing economy as more companies invest in Louisiana and create more jobs in the years ahead,” he said.
This year, colleges and universities are tapping into a new $40 million resource: the Workforce and Innovation for a Stronger Economy Fund.
Plans for those funds are slated for final approval at the state Board of Regents meeting next month.
Thanks to the WISE Fund, LSU has crafted a plan that will help it meet the growing demands of its engineering program through 2020, including hiring 50 new professors and dramatically increasing the number of graduates each year.
“We all want to be No. 1 in sports, but we also want to be No. 1 in academics,” Jindal said.
But it’s unclear what impact the impending budget cuts could have on the bigger picture.
State funding for higher education already has been dramatically reduced in Louisiana through repeated cuts in recent years, which have led to a shift toward tuition dollars. According to the national Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Louisiana’s per-student higher education funding plunged 43 percent between fiscal 2008 and 2014 — more than any other state’s.
Enrollment at the College of Engineering is about 5,606 this fall — up nearly 50 percent in the past five years, Jindal noted. LSU projects that figure will surpass 7,000 students by fall 2017 — the expansion project’s anticipated completion date.
Phyllis Taylor, widow of the man for whom the engineering building was named in 2007, said LSU, engineering and education were among Patrick Taylor’s priorities in life and the building will serve as a legacy to that.
“It is, to me, an extremely proud day,” she said.
Plans for the nearly 500,000-square-foot space include new labs, a new 250-seat auditorium, about 110,000 square feet of classrooms and an academic support center, among other features.
“It’s an expansion, but it will be as if we’re building a new building,” Jindal said.
Several of Monday’s attendees noted that the project was a 50/50 split of private and public funds, which put it on a fast track.
Half of the funding came from private donors, including $15 million from Taylor to honor her late husband. According to LSU, the project received 20 gifts of $1 million or more.
“It was a daunting challenge,” Alexander said. “This has truly been a team effort and a family effort.”
The state matched the other $55 million from its capital outlay fund.
LSU Foundation President and CEO Lee Griffin said he hopes that the fundraising push can serve as a model for future projects.
“I think this campaign has catapulted philanthropy for our alums throughout the country,” he said. “We made this our No. 1 goal.”