For the first time in nine years, Louisiana lawmakers tapped the brakes in June and left higher education’s finances alone as they were approving the state budget.

As students arrive Monday to begin classes, university staff and many professors are receiving their first pay raises in nearly a decade. And the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, which offers free tuition for students who meet certain academic benchmarks, is fully funded after a year of partial aid.

But leaders are still trying to sort out what repairs are most urgent after the most precipitous budget cuts to any state’s public higher education system forced myriad changes — some good, some not so good — to the way colleges and universities operate in Louisiana.

“We just went through nine years of 16 budget reductions,” LSU President F. King Alexander said.

But Alexander is optimistic a corner has been turned. He hired 133 new professors, and some of those coming were trained at Harvard University, the University of Paris and other highly rated academic institutions.

Still, there’s a long way to go, he added. “We’re going to have to claw our way back to where we were.”

The slide began back in 2009, when Gov. Bobby Jindal was drafting his first spending plan. All of Louisiana’s living former governors — save the one in prison at the time — made an unprecedented joint trip to the State Capitol to try to convince their young successor that his plan to reduce state aid to public colleges and universities was misguided.

Though the group of three Republicans and one Democrat agreed on little, they were in harmony with the need to continue a nearly three-decade effort to bring the quality of Louisiana’s public colleges and universities up to the levels of the rest of the South.

But Jindal, who had served briefly as head of one of the four college management boards, had been elected by supporters who saw higher education as something of a frill, albeit one that cost $2.4 billion a year to run. They saw fat everywhere: administrators with six-figure salaries, coaches making far more than that, lots of "do-nothing jobs," and thousands of students who took scenic routes through college, some never graduating and others winding up with degrees in esoteric subjects in which they couldn’t find work.

“We need to give higher education the time to make the changes they need to restructure, to become more efficient, to become more effective,” Jindal said at a news conference after meeting privately with the ex-governors.

Jindal wanted to slash by about one-sixth the $1.4 billion taxpayers were then contributing to the state’s 14 public universities, 15 community colleges and seven specialized units. To placate the former governors, Jindal instead agreed to a 6 percent cut.

But in every succeeding year, Jindal and his legislative supporters further reduced state support for higher education. By the end of Jindal’s second term, state aid had been slashed by about $731 million. The cuts, totaling 53 percent, were the steepest of any state in America.

Much of the difference, of course, was made up by students and their parents. Tuition and fees were increased by 111 percent as state aid fell, completely shifting the burden of higher education costs. In 2009, taxpayers shouldered 61 percent of those costs, but now they cover just 29 percent.

The inversion caused university officials to rethink their approach.

“When you become more reliant on self-generated revenue, it forces you to become consumer-oriented in your vision. So you’re focusing on meeting the needs of students, because if you don’t, the students won’t come to you,” said Jim Henderson, president of the University of Louisiana system — the largest of the state’s four higher education systems, with 90,000 students in nine regional institutions.

When the cuts in state aid began, Louisiana wasn’t alone: Amid a national recession, many states pared back support for their post-secondary institutions.

But as the national economy improved, most states reinvested in universities. Overall, since 2010, states have boosted funding for higher education by a national average of 10 percent.

Here in Louisiana, however, the cuts continued, through good times and bad. Jindal’s supporters argued that the students who receive the degrees should carry more of the burden in covering the spiraling costs of higher education, which have risen faster than health care.

That need for students to pick up costs grew especially urgent after a series of tax cuts for individuals and runaway growth of tax exemptions for businesses, followed by the collapse of oil and natural gas prices, left Louisiana’s budget in shambles.

The tuition increases, while shifting the burden to students — and perhaps dissuading many from enrolling — have helped to minimize the damage to universities themselves.

In total dollars, not just the state’s contribution, the money devoted to Louisiana’s public universities fell by $150 million in absolute numbers not adjusted for inflation between the fiscal year ending in 2009 and the one ending in 2017 — a drop of 6 percent.

But that understates the situation, according to Terrence Ginn, deputy commissioner of finances at the Board of Regents. Because of spikes in mandated costs — such as insurance and pension plans — scholarships and other costs, higher education's total revenue is $364 million less now than it was in 2009, Ginn said.

That’s a decrease of 15 percent.

But starving the beast fit in with Jindal’s goal — embraced by a majority of legislators and members of the higher education management boards — to force public colleges and universities to streamline.

In some ways, it worked.

The Louisiana Community and Technical College System moved to make all its campuses use the same management system, reducing duplication by locating services like payrolls in a single office. The move was expected to save about $29 million. The system also closed some campuses.

LSU and Southern saved a few dollars by making the presidents of their systems also work as chancellors of their respective flagship campuses in Baton Rouge.

In the University of Louisiana system, Grambling State University stopped teaching Spanish and French education, according to the Board of Regents. The University of Louisiana at Lafayette discontinued courses in sustainable agriculture and fashion design. In total, 485 low-achieving curriculums were jettisoned. The UL system also reduced salaries.

“Anytime you have financial challenges, it forces you to look at things differently and to get out of the status quo,” said state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, the Slidell Republican who sponsored legislation in 2016 asking the institutions to report what they have done and will do in the future.

“It forced us to streamline our operation, caused us to reorganize,” Hewitt said. “Sometimes it’s healthy to have to struggle a little bit financially because it pushes you out of your comfort zone.”

One way the struggle manifested itself was that officials stopped repairing buildings on many Louisiana public campuses, with the sorry condition of LSU’s Middleton Library being perhaps the most cited example.

Deferred maintenance expenses across the four systems now exceed $1.7 billion on building space worth $9.1 billion to the state.

But plaster literally falling onto the floor, although alarming, is only a part of the infrastructure problem, said professor Kevin Cope, who teaches 18th-century literature and until recently led the LSU Faculty Senate.

A bigger problem may be that the state’s schools need a broader overhaul: Many traditional buildings weren’t designed for modern teaching techniques.

“A lot of the classrooms are long and thin, designed for the ‘Old War Skule,’ but that’s not suited to the collaborative learning that you see these days in, say, engineering,” Cope said.

Although moldering buildings are a dispiriting and visible sign of decay, many observers say the bigger effect of the state’s constant cuts may have been on campus morale.

Professor Kirby Goidel, who left LSU in 2014 to teach political science at Texas A&M University, watched the mood change over time from the excitement of breaking new barriers to the plodding resignation of making it through another day.

When recruited by LSU from Indiana State University in 2002, Goidel said he was won over by Louisiana’s ambition.

“There was a lot of movement and a lot of state support — a recognition that higher education was important,” Goidel said. “Then you move into years and years of budget cuts and you no longer feel like you’re trying to be nationally competitive. You first feel like you’re treading water, waiting for the bad times to pass. Then after a few years of that, you realize we’re not treading water anymore. People are bailing.”

A study released in May indicates such feelings are widespread.

Seven of every 10 Louisiana professors and instructors who participated said they were actively looking for a new job. More than half said they’d be willing to take lower-paying posts in a state that demonstrates enough support for higher education that raises were possible, according to the analysis by professors Matthew Butkus, of McNeese State University in Lake Charles, and Michael Meeks, of LSU in Shreveport. A total of 575 professors answered the survey.

More data suggests there’s reason for the discontent. The average full-time faculty salary at a public four-year university in Louisiana in 2014 was $65,400, according to the Southern Regional Education Board. By comparison, the U.S. average was $79,300, while the averages in Texas and Alabama are both over $80,000.

Meanwhile, between 2007 and 2015, the number of tenure and tenure-track professors dropped from 2,478 to 1,961 in the University of Louisiana system schools. That’s a drop of about 20 percent.

“I’ve had people in my office actually crying,” said Bruce T. Murphy, president of Nicholls State University in Thibodaux. “They love being at Nicholls. They love the people. But they have their families to take care of. ... Show me a business that hasn’t given a cost of living increase or a pay raise or bonus in eight years. That’s what we’ve been saddled with.”

With fewer faculty, students are often in larger classrooms and classes are offered less often.

“A student being taught by an instructor or adjunct professor, instead of a full professor, is not a negative except when done globally,” said Henderson, of the UL system. “It can mean less availability in terms of course selection and scheduling, which can lengthen the time to degree.”

A faculty shortage led Southern University to draft professor Albert Samuels this year for a required international relations class.

Samuels already carried a full load teaching civil liberties and running a graduate-level seminar. But he had taught the class before, so he agreed, though he had not time to prepare lectures or even read the texts.

“We basically taught the course on the fly,” Samuels said. “It went well enough. … But we had so many cutbacks, we didn’t have many options. Students notice that.”

University leaders have attempted to limit the effect of the continual cuts on academics by focusing job reductions on the administrative side.

For instance, the size of Alexander’s LSU system staff has been slashed from 72 people when he started in 2013 to a couple dozen now.

But those cuts have created new problems for instructors.

With little training, academics have had to start filling out insurance forms, arranging travel and making purchases through an often Byzantine government system that’s difficult for administrators to master.

“It took hours of time; and the mistakes? Of course, there were lots of them and that took hours more to fix,” said Mandi J. Lopez, a professor of veterinary clinical sciences at LSU. It’s time she said could be better spent preparing lectures and doing research.

“A university is a complex system. That dynamic includes people to fix the pipes, people to enforce traffic, people to counsel students,” Lopez said. “All of these bits and pieces make up an elaborate mosaic, and when you start removing those pieces, the system falls apart.”

All those new burdens proved the last straw for Debra Dolliver, who was an award-winning tenured chemistry professor at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond before she took a teaching post at the University of Alabama.

“If you’re teaching full time, mentoring full time and doing administrative duties full time, well, something just has to give,” Dolliver said. “I left for multiple reasons, but that was a primary reason. We hadn’t had a raise in nine years, and it just didn’t make economic sense for me to stay there and maintain a household there. It didn’t look like it was going to change anytime in the foreseeable future.”

Schools in other states also have taken note of Louisiana’s struggles, and in addition to trying to lure away top faculty, they have stepped up their recruiting for Louisiana students.

Colleges in Mississippi and Texas, for instance, advertise on interstate billboards and flood the homes of promising high schoolers with mailers.

“We can’t keep our best students in Louisiana,” said Mary Werner, a member of the LSU Board of Supervisors. It’s a fact she knows personally: Werner’s daughter chose to attend Mississippi State University.

“She had several reasons, but one was stability,” Werner said. “She said to me, ‘How could I start in a program here when I don’t know what it’s going to look like in two or three years?’ ”

Joseph Rallo, the state’s commissioner of higher education, says the constant shadow of the budget ax hanging over Louisiana’s schools has been destructive.

“The instability and uncertainty that has occurred over the last nine years has really accelerated people’s lack of desire to take a chance on Louisiana, and that’s really detrimental to our students in the classroom and to our research,” Rallo said.

But not all of the numbers are discouraging.

Across all of Louisiana’s systems of higher education, the number of graduations increased from 37,405 in 2011 to 40,190 in 2016, a jump of about 7 percent. Among graduates, 79 percent of those receiving associate degrees and 71 percent with baccalaureates found jobs within six months, according to the Board of Regents.

Also, even with the massive tuition increases, the average $16,900 annual price tag to attend one of Louisiana’s public four-year universities is still the lowest in the South, according to the Southern Regional Education Board.

Meanwhile, this year, Louisiana finally ended the cuts, and even put a little more into higher education — indirectly, anyhow — by fully funding TOPS. The previous academic year, scholarship recipients got just 70 percent of their tuition covered, the first time taxpayers hadn’t covered the whole bill. Only about 30 percent – 44,756 of the 150,189 students enrolled last fall in public four-year institutions – received the free tuition offered by TOPS.

On the other hand, there’s evidence Louisiana is slipping further behind its peers.

Since 2006, Louisiana has dropped two spots in educational attainment and now ranks 49th of the 50 states, with only 29.1 percent of working-age residents earning an associate degree or higher, according to the National Information Center for Higher Education Policymaking and Analysis.

It’s impossible to prove a link between the cuts in state support and discouraging statistics like that one. But higher education officials believe it’s undeniable that the cuts went well beyond cutting fat in the system and eventually dug into the bone.

“Unfortunately,” the Board of Regents reported to the Legislature in February, “the painful transition for post-secondary education has been one of doing more with more, to more with less and finally less with less.”

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.