By Robert Mann
In the fall of 1992, Rolfe McCollister, publisher of the Greater Baton Rouge Business Report, was a member of the LSU Board of Supervisors. At the time, the state was enduring a budget crisis. Higher education was on the cutting block. And McCollister was furious.
So furious, he called for the arrest of the governor.
The governor at the time? Democrat Edwin Edwards.
Fast-forward 22 years. McCollister is again serving on the LSU Board of Supervisors. The state is again in the midst of a budget crisis. Higher education is again on the cutting block.
And McCollister’s attitude? He’s sanguine, not angry. Actually, he seems angry at those who are criticizing the governor.
This time, of course, the governor is his good friend and political ally, Republican Bobby Jindal.
In the Oct. 20-Nov. 2, 1992, edition of the Business Report, McCollister published a lengthy column entitled, “Governor Edwards Is Lying To Us.”
McCollister began his column, writing,
In the midst of this budget crisis in our state, the citizens of Louisiana deserve to know the truth. Well, don’t expect it from Edwin Edwards.
It is unconscionable to me that the leader of our state can use the careers, and futures, of those on our college campuses as pawns in a political game – just to manipulate the public and legislators into getting his own way.
McCollister was particularly angry over Edwards’ argument – much like Jindal’s during the past six years – that he has no choice but to cut higher education because “state law forced him to.” To that, McCollister wrote, “Eddie, your nose is growing longer.”
McCollister noted that the previous governor, McCollister’s good friend Buddy Roemer, had avoided cutting higher education for four years.
Edwards, McCollister said, could avoid the deep budget cuts to colleges if he considered higher education a priority.
“I’ve heard Mr. [Raymond] LaBorde [Edwards’ commissioner of administration] say that many of these programs [that are not being cut] are worthwhile,” McCollister wrote. “Baloney! A small portion may be federally mandated, but state government has often ignored federal mandates without any consequence. As far as worthwhile programs – what is higher education? Chopped liver?”
McCollister scoffed at Edwards’ argument that budget matters “comes down to ‘tough decisions,’” observing, “The Governor has said he believes that higher education is a priority, because that’s good political rhetoric. The fact is, his actions and priorities in spending do not substantiate that claim. In other words, his nose is growing longer.”
Last Saturday, the LSU Board of Supervisors’ chair, Ann Duplessis, issued a rare weekend statement on behalf of the board. It was apparently a response to my column, which appeared Friday on NOLA.com. That column called on the next governor to clean house at the LSU Board for its failure to publicly challenge Jindal over his budget cuts to higher education.
(You can read the entire LSU board statement at this link on my blog.)
Ostensibly, the statement was in support of LSU President F. King Alexander, who is fighting to save the university from a crippling 82 percent budget cut. Board members said they were watching the unfolding drama with “collective anxiety and concern,” while working behind the scenes to do their part. They will, they said, allow Alexander to wage the public fight for LSU on their behalf.
But, it was this passage in Saturday’s board statement that caught my eye:
All 16 members of the Board of Supervisors representing the entire state of Louisiana are united in our call for restoration of funding and we will continue to use our collective experience and ability to access key policy makers to advance LSU’s position. Individually, members of the LSU Board of Supervisors are not interested in seeking the media spotlight, but rather we are investing our time and energy in seeking solutions that will make a difference for LSU and its students. [Emphasis mine]
Presumably, McCollister counts himself among those 16 board members more interested in working quietly behind the scenes to stave off the budget cuts. He’s not interested in the spotlight. He won’t be publicly attacking a governor who wants to gut higher education. Goodness gracious, that would be, well, impolite.
Recently, McCollister took to his column to ostensibly defend Jindal against charges that he is about to gut higher education in the coming fiscal year.
Too many of the voices we have heard recently—especially from the news media—sound like Chicken Little. Let me predict here and now, the world will not end for Louisiana or higher education during the upcoming session of the Legislature. Solutions will be found. . . .
Louisiana’s current budget shortfall is rooted in issues that have affected our state over a long period of time. They include populism, parochialism, poor public education and an electorate that elected the likes of Edwin Edwards for governor . . . four times. I remember the nightmarish 1990s run-off between Edwards and David Duke. Both ended up in prison. I remember the opposition to Buddy Roemer’s fiscal reform after the policies of Edwards and then-State Sen. William Jefferson, who also is now in prison. Is there a pattern here? Are we reaping what we sowed years ago?
Public education has failed to help our children break Louisiana’s historic cycle of poverty that reproduces a culture of lack of work and poor health. And the cycle repeats itself, which adds more dependents to the state, raises the cost of health care and produces more high school dropouts, too many of whom end up incarcerated. This also means fewer college-ready students for Louisiana’s colleges and workforce.
Let’s agree Chicken Little is no leader. Our budget issue is complex and even cultural—and involves a lot more than having enough money. We have complained about the same things for years, but refuse to change, instead looking for an easy way out. Why? Maybe Pogo was right: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Funny, in 1992, McCollister believed the enemy was Edwin Edwards. Now, it’s us? (By the way, McCollister’s recent don’t-worry-be-happy column never once mentioned Jindal by name.)
Twenty-two years ago, when higher education came under threat, McCollister was furious and outspoken. (Remember, he was then serving on the LSU Board, as he does today.) Here’s what he wrote in his 1992 column:
So, as a member of the LSU Board of Supervisors, I will ask my fellow board members and those on the Board of Trustees [now the University of Louisiana System], Board of Regents, and the Southern Board of Supervisors, to join with me and the students and faculty, to call upon the Governor to rescind his recent executive order involving budget cuts. He should issue a new executive order making higher education a real priority. Upon reviewing the recommendations of the Legislative Fiscal Office, which details $150 million in possible cuts, the Governor can make his choice. If the Governor fails to issue a new executive order, then at least the people will know the truth about where higher education ranks in the Governor’s own mind. We need to know what’s more important – our children’s future, or Edwin’s political friends.
McCollister ended his powerful column with a footnote about the then-recent arrest of the student body vice president from the University of New Orleans. Police had arrested the student at the State Capitol for inciting a riot during student protests against the proposed higher education budget cuts.
McCollister had a better idea.
This was unfortunate for it was the Governor who should have been arrested along with [Senate President Sammy] Nunez, [House Speaker John] Alario, and any of those legislators who feasted on ‘pork’ during the last session. They were responsible for the riot by students. They could also have been thrown in jail for robbing our children of their future, or holding the colleges and universities hostage.
State Police arrested the wrong man.
In 1992, budget cuts to higher education infuriated McCollister. Today? Not so much. Perhaps students, faculty members, staff and the parents of today’s students ought to ask McCollister and other members of the LSU Board the same question McCollister posed in 1992:
We need to know what’s more important – our children’s future, or [the governor’s] political friends.