In a recent column, Will Sutton responds to the Southern University of New Orleans budget deficit and news that the university has been placed on probation by its accrediting agency. Much is at stake, for if the school loses accreditation, it will simply be forced to close. Sutton effectively shines light on this dire situation, but he also shows a deep ignorance of the historical roots of SUNO’s predicament and a naive hope that the university will be able to cut its way out of its problems.
To truly understand SUNO’s present and precarious future requires understanding its past. Since the recession of 2009, state appropriations for higher education have dropped dramatically. At the worst point, during the governorship of Bobby Jindal, Louisiana’s budgeting for higher education was cut nearly in half. While appropriations have stabilized somewhat with John Bel Edwards, funding has not returned to its pre-recession level. But even with a complete return, the fact is that the state has never adequately funded the city’s public universities. There is a gross disparity between the richest universities and the poorest ones, and that disparity is getting worse, not better. SUNO’s financial crisis is part of state’s long disinvestment in public higher education and a trend to shift students to private universities, higher tuitions, and a lifetime of debt.
Deep financial cuts to a public university are never “course-correcting,” as Sutton claims. That is because those at the top, the administrators making the cuts, rarely if ever take the ax out on themselves. The heaviest burden therefore usually falls on those at the bottom: adjuncts and contingent faculty, custodians already making an unconscionable pittance, and junior professors trying to establish some semblance of a research profile. But the biggest losers are undoubtedly students whose professors are overworked and underpaid, whose programs are scrapped, whose classes are canceled. Imposing deep financial cuts and growing a university should be understood as fundamentally antithetical. The more one cuts, the fewer students enroll; the fewer students enroll, the more one cuts. This is the downward spiral now at work at our public university.
SUNO needs a balanced budget, but laying off faculty and staff, canceling classes and programs, and raising fees and tuition on economically disadvantaged students at a public university should not be cavalierly applauded. We should all hope that the interim Chancellor is successful in enrolling more students and making strategic cuts, especially on the administrative level, in order to ensure the accreditation and survival of the institution. But this not, as Sutton puts it, “an opportunity to make things right.” It is instead an opportunity to think about past and ongoing injustices and to reassert the value of public higher education in New Orleans.