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Outgoing President F. King Alexander speaks during diploma ceremonies for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences as part of LSU's 300th commencement, Friday, December 20, 2019, at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rouge.

In what’s becoming something of a tradition for Louisiana governors entering their second term, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards last week weighed in on how to govern LSU, basically backing a move to upend the system put in place by his predecessor, Gov. Bobby Jindal, during the opening days of the Republican’s second term.

Back in 2012, just as Jindal appointees to the board became a majority, pugnacious LSU President John Lombardi was sent packing after detailing for the Legislature the problems, as he saw them, in Jindal’s plan for higher education. LSU Chancellor Michael Martin left soon thereafter.

The LSU board consolidated the position of chancellor of the flagship campus in Baton Rouge with the president who ran a system that includes regional colleges, medical schools, charity hospitals, a biomedical research facility as well as the AgCenter and law school.

Edwards said he didn’t think “the institution is better served” by having one person fill both roles. “You want your chancellor present at events on campus but also to do fundraising specific for the campus at A&M university, whereas the system president has to do that all across the state of Louisiana,” said Edwards, whose 11 appointees now dominate the 16-member LSU Board of Supervisors.

Members of the LSU board have told reporters, as Chair Mary Werner recently acknowledged to the Board of Regents, that they are considering whether to change the setup before launching a nationwide search for a new leader, or leaders, to replace F. King Alexander, who is moving to run Oregon State University in July.

The current administrative system was put in place, at the urging of business leaders, to improve the flagship status of LSU Baton Rouge in the eyes of the groups that rank universities across the nation.

What Jindal really was looking at was an LSU that had grown somewhat haphazardly over the years picking up stand-alone institutions that operated with their own administrators for their own goals.

Citing several studies, a group of businessmen calling themselves “The Flagship Coalition,” pressed Jindal to move the research power of the several institutions into one entity and give LSU Baton Rouge, as the state’s flagship, independence to raise tuition and set its own admission requirements. Jindal and the LSU Board agreed.

Should the LSU board now reverse itself, the door is open to also hire a chancellor for the Baton Rouge campus. Most institutions in America tend to hire academics who shepherd curricula and research.

A system president often needs political acumen to deal with fund-holding lawmakers and many institutions go off campus to find one, according to the American Council on Education. They include outsiders like former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue University, and University of California President Janet Napolitano, a former Arizona governor and head of the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security under President Barack Obama.

That opens the door for candidates, like Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, who has expressed interest in the job, and others who have made their mark outside of academia.

As both system president and flagship chancellor, Alexander had some trouble playing well with others, in part because as system president, LSU’s regional two-and four-year colleges competed for funding and students with the other higher education systems, while as chancellor he needed support for the flagship.

On the other hand, Monte Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, said Alexander, as system president, was largely responsible for working out the details that allow two-year community college graduates to move to LSU Baton Rouge for a four-year degree, often with significant grants to help defray the increased expense. Back in 2012, only 50 or so students, mostly athletes, made the jump, Sullivan said. Now about 1,550 do each year.

Both Sullivan and Jim Henderson, president of the University of Louisiana System, which oversees state and regional colleges and educates the most students, agree with the wisdom of the LSU board to rethinking its structure now that they are faced with replacing Alexander. Though LSU Baton Rouge has become more involved in research, the flagship really hasn’t moved up much in the estimation of national rankers.

“Alignment isn’t what is holding us back,” Henderson said. It’s a vision thing and the coordinated role each college and university plays.

A decade from now robotics and technology will be ascendant, so the question is the proper role for each of higher education systems to prepare students for that reality. As flagship, LSU should drive that research and create technology.

“If you’re going to be competitive as a state you need a nationally competitive flagship, and LSU certainly has the potential to be that,” Henderson said.

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