Last Modified: Tuesday, September 18, 2012 11:19 AM
BATON ROUGE (AP) — The retiring president of the University of Louisiana System said higher education's ongoing budget woes will make it harder to attract his replacement and were among the reasons he decided to leave the job.
Randy Moffett, whose last day was Friday after four years in the leadership role, said the cuts complicated efforts of the state's largest university system to maintain a focus on increased performance.
"It is extremely difficult to deal with the financial demise of an enterprise that you personally — and many other people — have worked diligently to increase the quality of and to improve the conditions for students and faculty. It wears on you. It makes you question whether you're doing the right things," Moffett, 65, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Despite the problematic financial picture, Moffett said he's optimistic the UL System will attract a quality leader looking for a challenge.
"I'm not leaving as a cynic," said the retiring leader, who spent 40 years in higher education.
Moffett's retirement comes after a tenure marked by repeated budget cuts from Gov. Bobby Jindal and lawmakers that have stripped more than $426 million in annual state financing from higher education in Louisiana, including $210 million from the UL System.
The university system, which has 93,000 students and nine schools across the state, raised student tuition by $115 million over the same period to fill some of the gap, according to data provided by system spokeswoman Jackie Tisdell.
More than 1,300 jobs were cut across campuses, along with classes, student services and 217 academic programs.
Overseeing the elimination of teaching jobs and courses wasn't exactly what Moffett had in mind when he took the job in July 2008.
At that time, Louisiana's higher education funding had finally reached the Southern regional average. Then, Louisiana's state income took a nosedive, and colleges and universities received much of the brunt of the cuts.
"It's never not on your mind. It stays with you seven days a week. It has been a trying and difficult time," said Moffett, a soft-spoken man who grew louder in his advocacy for higher education as the cuts worsened.
Asked whether the continued budget crises led to his retirement, he replied: "It was a personal decision, but yes, the finances contributed to it, because you really sometimes wonder if what you're doing is providing any value and helping the people that you're trying to help."
Before being tapped as system president, Moffett had been president of Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond for seven years. The Louisiana native started his career more than four decades ago as a high school teacher in Jackson Parish.
During his time as system president, Moffett oversaw the selection of five university presidents and the movement of the University of New Orleans campus into the UL System.
He said the system has enacted admission standards, improved retention and graduation rates, boosted online degrees and expanded partnerships with two-year community colleges. But Moffett said it will become more difficult to continue increasing performance if dollars continue to shrink.
The UL System Board of Supervisors is seeking a recruiting firm to help find Moffett's successor after receiving only a handful of applications in response to the initial advertisement for the job. Tom Layzell, who has higher education experience across several states and Louisiana, is in the position as an interim leader.
"The financial picture creates a challenge in bringing people in, but I believe there are people out there who relish the opportunity and the challenge," Moffett said.
But, he added, "We're not a very positive external portrayal of support for higher education."
Moffett suggested lawmakers should revisit the state's free college tuition program, the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, as they wrestle with the budget.
TOPS is a popular program across the state, but its costs are growing annually — to $168 million in the current fiscal year that began July 1. Because the price tag for TOPS is tied to tuition, any increase in tuition, which needs legislative approval, gets wrapped up in budget concerns.
Moffett said lawmakers should consider increasing the eligibility criteria for a TOPS award, requiring students to pay back at least some of the money if they don't complete their degree and capping the tuition money that a student can receive.
"You have to weigh the benefit of TOPS, which I believe is a wonderful benefit to students, families and the state, against how much can we really afford?" he said.
Similar ideas have failed to win support from lawmakers and governors when they've been proposed in past years.
As he wrapped up his tenure, Moffett said he'll always advocate for higher education issues and will be available for advice to the system's governing board as it looks for a new president, even as he works on his golf game and spends more time fishing.