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Former LSU chancellor James Wharton, 2009.

With a long face and somewhat lugubrious expression in repose, generations of LSU students probably thought they were meeting, on the first day of Jim Wharton’s chemistry classes, the undertaker of their grade-point averages.

They found out that the tall man with a first-class mind was one of those full professors who cared deeply about undergraduates’ education.

“As an out-of-state freshman trying to find my way at a big state university, I was so grateful for his engaging teaching (even in a huge class), as well as his accessibility when I needed help,” recalled Stephen Moret of the chancellor who died Saturday.

Young Moret was to become a keen student of campus politics so it was a shock for him to find later that his chemistry prof had, until two years before, been chancellor of the LSU campus. After being one of the players in the affairs of Louisiana, Wharton went right back to teaching, without fanfare.

Like being chancellor, he did it very well.

Today’s remembrances of Wharton focus on his dramatic changes that he made to the LSU campus that was reeling from climate change: Louisiana paid for higher education, as well as most else in 1981, from oil and gas revenues and taxes on the industry.

With a crash, those revenues evaporated. LSU had to change. It was an open-admissions campus where thousands of freshmen were admitted based on a high-school diploma. The system would allow them their parties and football games, while flunking out the large percentage who should never have been admitted in the first place.

Wharton had to manage financial disaster at a level few can today imagine, but his long history at LSU — he knew where the academic bodies were buried, or were still above-ground in zombie departments — and a command of data helped him to make unthinkable changes.

While now-departed President-chancellor F. King Alexander bewailed budget cuts during his term, Wharton’s were probably more dramatic. But Wharton did not allow the crisis to go to waste.

The downsizing was necessary but Wharton’s deep knowledge of the institution allowed him to free money to grow research capabilities. LSU gained Research I status, the union card for grants from the National Science Foundation and other funders.

His bruising political battle for admissions requirements took years but from those changes LSU emerged as a slightly smaller but nationally competitive institution.

Back in the classroom, Wharton played key roles behind the scenes for many years. Many of his insights were based on comparisons with other states, as he was a much-sought-after adviser on higher ed finance. He also worked on desegregation of higher education as an adviser to other states.

Unlike itinerant academic ladder-climbers of today, the home boy could apply his deep knowledge to events on campus and beyond, too long and too deeply for comfort for the powers-that-followed.

Wharton was skeptical of Alexander’s “holistic admissions” that played down more objective standards like grades and ACT test scores. Despite claims that the looser standards would attract out-of-state students for their treasured tuition dollars, Wharton told me he saw indications that the admissions tended to be poached from other Louisiana institutions.

As so often, Wharton knew too much. Wharton had a deep emotional commitment to undergraduate education, even if he is today remembered for advances on the research side.

Like young Moret, whom he was later to advise at the Public Affairs Research Council, Wharton was from a modest family background. Like Moret, LSU gave him an extraordinary role in life for which he was deeply grateful.

And Wharton did it for one-tenth of Alexander’s salary. That is not adjusted for inflation, but neither is the vast academic bureaucracy of today, all of the vice-provosts and whatnots, commanding princely wages.

Wharton’s staff was small and academic deans actually ran their colleges, with Provost Carolyn Hargrave riding herd on the tough changes needed because of the oil crash.

How many chancellors, or today presidents, can claim to have the vision, tenacity and passion for the institution and Louisiana that Jim Wharton had?

Email Lanny Keller at lkeller@theadvocate.com.

Former LSU president F. King Alexander says his push to diversify made him enemies


Email Lanny Keller at lkeller@theadvocate.com.