How did it come to this sad state in Louisiana higher education? How could venerable institutions with hundreds of thousands of graduates and more than 200,000 students prove so powerless at the state Capitol? Why have these schools — with their amazing students, brilliant faculty and gifted administrators — been unable to persuade lawmakers to increase their budgets or, at least, guarantee them long-term budget stability?
Long ago, when I worked at the Capitol, I would hear rumblings about trimming LSU’s funding. That talk never went anywhere because of the assumption that if the governor or the Legislature messed with LSU, its students, faculty and alumni would descend upon them with pitchforks waving and torches blazing.
State leaders, fearful of the roar of the LSU tiger, instead gave the school and other state universities ample funding. Then, in 2008, Bobby Jindal became governor and we learned that the Fighting Tigers were really paper tigers.
As Jindal and lawmakers attacked state universities and slashed their funding, nothing much happened in response. The alumni associations and university foundations did not organize their members to descend on the Capitol to fight the cuts. There were some scattered protests by students and faculty, but the cuts happened anyway.
Then-LSU Chancellor Mike Martin spoke up about the way Jindal was hurting his university. Jindal’s staff dressed him down and later ran him out of town. Others lost their jobs for speaking out. Soon, the message was clear: Keep quiet and go along or we’ll fire you or cut your budget even more.
With that, Jindal’s path was largely unimpeded. He and Republican lawmakers intimidated, attacked and undermined higher education leaders during this eight-year reign of terror. They did so because, as they began, few people stood up to their bullying in a forceful and effective way.