F, King Alexander 101518

LSU President F. King Alexander told the Press Club of Baton Rouge, Monday, Oct. 15, 2018, that changes in the university's admissions standards has helped shape the most diverse, highest achieving freshman class in school history.

Is it better to ask forgiveness than permission? LSU President F. King Alexander has pushed that saying to an extreme, unsettling a decades-old consensus on higher education policy.

The Advocate's Mark Ballard reported on the "unilateral" LSU decision on admissions policies, but the word doesn't capture the sense in which LSU is proceeding with blithe disregard to its place in a statewide system of higher education.

That place is very high: LSU's main campus is the flagship public institution, and its graduates are leaders in communities across the state. Legislators are avid consumers of LSU football and baseball tickets, and the governor's appointments to the Board of Supervisors are prized political tokens.

Nor is there no case for updating LSU's admissions policies, as Alexander told the Press Club of Baton Rouge, because major colleges across the country — including southern rivals — are seeking to "poach" highly qualified Louisiana students.

Alexander deserves credit for saying outright that it's about the Benjamins, despite much hypocrisy about money in higher education. LSU and other colleges suffered budget cuts under former Gov. Bobby Jindal. Paying customers from Houston are not displacing in-state LSU students, Alexander said.

For conservatives, of course, the idea of removing a minimum ACT entrance score of 22 is anathema because it is a more objective standard. Nor is it in compliance with Regents policies since 2001, and the spirit of LSU's own policies for more than a decade before that.

Despite what Alexander says about not lowering standards, scores of 19 or 20 or 21 are lower than 22, a mathematical fact. Nor is it welcome that LSU ignored — and clearly, willfully ignored — a Regents ban on more than 4 percent of exceptions for admissions for the main campus.

LSU's move in part was based, Alexander says implausibly, on a 2006 resolution of the LSU Faculty Senate — years before he arrived in Baton Rouge. Was there consultation with anyone? Basically, no.

A vice president of enrollment — in addition to the cost of an existing vice president of student affairs — was brought in to devise "holistic admissions" that are the rage in colleges nationwide. Alexander makes a passionate case that LSU is like every other campus in the nation, facing stagnant enrollments and needing to diversify its student base. Students let in under the review have a good chance to succeed, Alexander said.

The Regents policies are "recommendations," Alexander said. It comes off as dismissive, hardly a way to win forgiveness from Regents.

Alexander's unilateral process has exposed some real issues about the Regents' relative weakness compared to LSU's board and the other college systems' "management" boards. Who picked 4 percent exceptions for LSU or 8 percent for Southern University? "Where do these numbers come from?" Alexander told the Press Club.

It's a pretty good question and, the Regents' role as policymaker for higher education is at risk either way, if that board allows this LSU decision to stand or tries to reverse it. An "audit" of admissions statewide, taking months to complete, is the only response from Regents for now. Perhaps an eventual compromise will allow "holistic" review of students' backgrounds but seek to reassert some admissions "recommendations" as firmer policies.

Alexander has permission, from his own LSU board, although after the fact, as enrollment changes were made in-house.

Permission from the Board of Supervisors, but forgiveness from LSU's colleagues in the larger statewide system? That may be harder to come by.

Email Lanny Keller at lkeller@theadvocate.com.