Beam: Higher education needs our help

By By Jim Beam / American Press

Higher education in Louisiana has been

victimized by the Bobby Jindal administration over the last six years,

and the Legislature

has been a willing accomplice. The governor and his spokesmen

always come up with excuses in their efforts to discredit the

critics, but they fall far short of justification.

The loss of the state’s two major

higher education leaders speaks volumes about the sad state of funding.

Jim Purcell, commissioner

of higher education, won’t seek to have his contract renewed when

it expires in March. Joe May, who heads the Louisiana Community

and Technical College System, announced in October he had accepted

a job as leader of the Dallas Community College District.

Those are going to be difficult shoes to fill. Both men were diplomatic about their reasons for departing, but you know down

deep they can’t be happy about the sad state of affairs in higher education.

Purcell never hesitated to speak his mind, and Jindal wanted him fired because of it. The state Board of Regents refused to

be bullied and instead gave Purcell what was described as “a glowing performance review.”

May directed a system that has grown from 46,000 to 70,000 students. Seven of its 13 schools were among the fastest growing

institutions in the country.

Legislators have gone along with Jindal and cut some $700 million from higher education budgets. Universities are hurting

financially and losing faculty, cutting programs and increasing class sizes.

Higher education institutions are also

facing a possible cash flow problem. It’s because the Jindal

administration and the

Legislature used uncertain financing plans to bolster university

budgets. And no one was surprised when Kristy Nichols, the

governor’s commissioner of administration, said she is confident

everything is going to work out OK and the money will materialize.

It may, but that is no way to put

together a state budget. A state district court judge in November ruled

that the administration

and legislators shouldn’t have balanced the state’s budget by

taking dollars from a retirement fund for probation and parole

officers. Nichols said there would be no immediate impact and

believed the state Supreme Court would overturn the ruling.

Maybe it will, but House Clerk Butch

Speer warned there would be serious consequences if other agencies that

lost money went

to the courts for similar rulings. Jindal and lawmakers have been

raiding similar funds for years. You wouldn’t believe how

the governor and legislators have managed to shift money around in

devious fashions.

Purcell warned legislators during the session that cash flow could be a problem down the line. However, like Jindal, they

ignored his warnings. The administration rejects bad news in any shape or form. It has a Pollyanna attitude, believing its

way is the only way and everything is right with the world.

The truth is higher education is going to take years to recover from the Jindal legacy. And that is especially distasteful

after his two predecessors took so many positive steps for colleges and universities.

Former Gov. Mike Foster (1996-2004) backed creation of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System. Kirby Goidel,

director of LSU’s Manship School Research Facility, in 2012 said, “... Foster became a surprising and ardent champion of

higher education and invested heavily in the state’s colleges and universities. Kathleen Blanco followed suit.”

Blanco (2004-2008) made history by

fully funding Louisiana’s colleges and universities for the first time

in more than a quarter

of a century. She expanded higher education’s research capacity

and passed the state’s first substantial college need-based

aid program.

Jindal and his public relations

machinery will be quick to deny higher education has been hurt. We will

hear about higher

graduation rates, tuition hikes making up most of the budget cuts

and future plans to increase higher education funding. But

the facts speak otherwise.

The Times-Picayune reported Dec. 5 that

data from the American Association of Colleges and Universities showed

Louisiana made

the most drastic cuts in higher education in the nation for the

current fiscal year — a 17.6 percent reduction. West Virginia

was second at 8.9 percent. Meanwhile, three-fourths of the states

have increased their higher education funding.

Once again, a Jindal spokesman

discredited the information. Kyle Plotkin said the study had a narrow

focus and that Louisiana

spent more than 33 other states per capita on higher education.

So, it comes down to a question of whom do you believe? You

can answer that one on your own.

Don’t take our word for the damage that

has been done to Louisiana higher education. Ask college and university

officials

and the people who work in those areas. They have to talk to you

off the record to protect their jobs because the Jindal administration

has no room for dissent.

Those of us who have benefited immensely from a college education have to speak up for those who can’t. Both McNeese State

University and LSU had a major impact on my life, and I want others to enjoy the same opportunities I had. Education is a

guaranteed ticket to a better life.

• • •

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or jbeam@americanpress.com