By Robert Mann

It’s no secret that Louisiana higher education, once a stable ship, is a leaky rust bucket. Swamped by budgetary storms, battered by unwise tax cuts and discounted by feckless state leaders unwilling to invest in a 21st century workforce, our state’s universities are sinking fast.

As legislators anticipate a state budget shortfall as high as $1.6 billion, the coming budget year won’t involve giving the ship new sails or even a new coat of paint; it’s about what they must do before it vanishes below the waves.

Some lawmakers say they might find enough temporary revenue (by repealing or suspending some corporation tax exemptions) to prevent a total collapse. But don’t expect them — in an election year — to raise the taxes necessary to  fund higher education adequately for the long haul.

The budget disaster is so dire that college leaders, facing $350 million in cuts to their institutions, would probably praise Gov. Bobby Jindal if he slashed their budgets by “only” $100 million.

While colleges desperately need new money and students need relief from rising tuition, there are other ways to shore up higher education. Jindal, legislators and higher education leaders could take some important steps now. Most do not involve finding new revenue. Here are my seven suggestions for righting the ship:

Louisiana universities must re-establish their political power. For decades, no one at the Capitol has been afraid of anyone representing a university. Few legislators tremble at the prospect of nonexistent hordes of angry college faculty, students and alumni. College leaders have failed to educate the public about the value of their institutions to the state and its economy. It’s past time for them to speak out forcefully, show some courage and behave as leaders, not functionaries for Jindal. They might even consult the Louisiana State Police, which recently won a 20 percent pay raise for its troopers, whom legislators appear to respect.

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