Although Louisiana isn’t known for leading the pack when it comes to education, LSU officials did something forward-thinking in 2012 when they arranged for the university’s sports program to regularly share a portion of its wealth to help fund academics on campus.
Under the policy developed by then-athletic director Joe Alleva, his department has transferred more than $66 million to the university to advance its learning mission.
Most schools don’t do this kind of thing, but LSU’s transfer arrangement between its lucrative sports program and the broader campus makes sense. The partnership tacitly acknowledges that marquee attractions such as its football team operate in publicly owned facilities at a publicly owned university that was created as a teaching institution. That means LSU’s high-profile athletics program has a higher public obligation than a conventional commercial enterprise, although SEC college sports is obviously big business.
But Alleva’s gone now, and LSU’s new athletic director, Scott Woodward, says his department has to cut back on how much money it routinely gives to academics.
“We want to continue to be an important part of the university,” Woodward said. “We want to contribute to the university over time. But it has to decrease. We can’t sustain a successful department without it.”
Woodward’s basically saying that if he keeps shelling out money to help educate students, he won’t have enough to properly entertain them.
If that sounds like an argument straight out of imperial Rome, where leaders gave the populace thrilling circuses as the empire crumbled, Woodward’s philosophy isn’t exactly a new one around Tiger Nation. There’s been a tail-wagging-the-dog tradition at LSU for years as fans focused on fielding a competitive football team even as many of its academic programs fell far behind the offerings of peer institutions.
The money-sharing arrangement brokered by Alleva was a helpful attempt to address that disparity, but now even that modest effort at balancing athletics and academics on campus could largely go by the wayside.
In the meantime, Woodward’s poor-mouthing seems particularly off-key given LSU's recent unveiling of a $28 million upgrade to its football facility that includes luxury locker rooms so lavish they’d bring a blush to Nero’s cheeks.
The renovation was paid for by private donors, but the plush digs for LSU’s gladiators of the gridiron don’t suggest a program struggling to make ends meet. In the meantime, LSU’s main library is a leaky mess, and the LSU System has a $1.7 billion backlog of deferred maintenance.
The current debate about priorities at LSU is a healthy one, and long overdue. But it shouldn’t involve a false choice between Louisiana’s flagship public university competing on the gridiron and in the global marketplace. Other universities manage to do both, and so can we.