LSU Faculty Senate Publications

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Message from President: Followers of the headlines relish big events, whether mammoth economic downturns or raging battles or colossal storms. Leaders, especially those of the academic kind, most often deal with small events, whether the rotation of Chairs in a tiny department or the bursting of a water main on a satellite campus or declining enrollments in an unfashionable curriculum. Those seeking the reasons for the troubles faced by Louisiana higher education institutions might be well-advised to narrow their inquiries: to consider the role of the incremental in building or dissolving the grand—in, as it were, gradually pushing up or eroding Gibraltar. What makes a university great, not so great, mediocre, or shabby is less often the level of external funding or the number of institutes it houses or the size of the faculty or student body than its tolerance for small deviations and respect for detail. The worst damage of the nine-year Louisiana higher education budget decline has been an epidemic of frustration (and eventually apathy) concerning small matters. Terrorized by the prospect of catastrophic funding cuts, academic folk have become accustomed to making modest concessions, tolerating minor faults, and acquiescing in seemingly trivial matters. Not even the most rigorous moralist would recommend flying into a rage owing to the discovery of a bent paperclip or a scratch on a desk chair, but Louisiana higher education professionals— especially those in politically sensitive leadership positions—have learned not to complain about much of anything short of a building collapse. The list of small concessions that occur every day is a long one. Everyone knows the obvious examples such as working in dilapidated, moldy, or crumbling rooms or going one more year without a raise or stumbling over the pothole in the parking lot. Other concessions are subtler. Consider an excerpt from the inventory: pretending that we can overlook the bad behavior and preposterous ideas of donors, who support a political caste that devastates higher education, in the hope of getting a few more gift dollars; looking the other way when an Athletic program constructs yet another facility by way of entertaining rather than instructing the public; flinching and carrying on when students, who wield the power of the teaching evaluation, present bogus or hypochondriacal excuses for non-performance; accepting a soggy muffin asphyxiated in plastic wrap from a campus coffee shop; sitting in a library chair that is about to disintegrate; logging into a business enterprise system that will not work; sneaking access privileges from another institution to get to a database that Louisiana cannot afford; quickly clicking past a university web site that shows nothing but children frolicking in student activity centers; trying to find a non-flea-bag hotel that rents a room at the official state rate; explaining to graduate students that their medical insurance has been outsourced to a dubious provider so that premiums will not consume the totality of an assistantship. These and a thousand other seemingly minor faults add up to a surprisingly large negative sum, making the difference between a great and a merely aspirational institution. Historians might wonder whether the history of Louisiana predisposes its people to accept compromise. Louisiana, after all, offered a safe (or, in the case of enslaved populations, hostile) haven to an astounding array of refugee groups, people who were surely glad to get the little bit of good that they could find in a cruel world. Louisiana found itself on the losing side of the civil war and continues as the ideal stage for dramatized conflict, whether the Alexandria Maneuvers prior to World War II or the mock combat of college football or the tragedies of 2005 and 2016 that filled television screens nationwide and that condensed an assortment of nationwide debates. One might daringly conjecture that Louisiana is a “national small concession,” the place that America at once overlooks and uses to play out its problems. Educators need to be a little less tolerant, to get back in the habit of making judgments and occasionally uttering daringly critical statements. Just as any reasonable person would demand a clean napkin at a restaurant table, higher education professional should instruct both their leaders and their students to speak up: to enjoy the opportunity to correct rather than concede.