LSU's Possible 'Bankruptcy': The Bell Tolls for Louisiana Higher Education

04/27/2015 03:55 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2015

The budget outlook for Louisiana State University is so dire that its main campus is drafting a financial exigency plan--the university equivalent of bankruptcy. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal's current budget slashes statewide higher education funding by 82 percent. Speaking about LSU's flagship campus in Baton Rouge, LSU president F. King Alexander said bankruptcy is "how we are going to survive."

Exigency would mean LSU's financial situation is so calamitous, the viability of the entire university is in danger. It would allow LSU to fire tenured faculty and eliminate academic programs. The mere possibility that the state's flagship university, my alma mater and home to more than 30,000 students, could soon be a skeleton of its formal self is shocking. Jordan Kurland, a National American Association of University Professors official, told NBC News he did not know of "anything that drastic [having] occurred anywhere in modern times or perhaps ever."

According to documents LSU provided in response to a public records request I filed last week relating to Louisiana's $1.6 billion budgetary shortfall, the LSU System's campuses had already been planning for a possible 35 percent reduction in general funds. In Baton Rouge, such cuts would "change LSU's mission as a public research and land-grant university. It will no longer be capable of competing with America's significant public universities and will find itself dramatically behind the rest of the nation," according to the main campus's plan.

Even partial exigency (and the mere talk of bankruptcy) would cast a shadow over LSU's reputation. Recruiting students would become difficult. It would be years before quality professors even consider working at LSU. Moody's Investors Service has already lowered LSU's credit outlook, leading national investors to back out of a deal to help expand the student health center and renovate student housing. Imagine trying to recruit students or--god forbid--student athletes to a school headed down a path to insolvency.

Lost amid the LSU main campus's financial exigency plan are discussions about what will happen to the LSU System's other campuses. Even on LSU's main campus, officials have been fairly mum about specific cuts. All the public knows is the cuts will be severe.

The documents LSU provided in response to my public records request are a trove of information relating to how each of LSU's campuses would absorb a 35 percent reduction in general funds. They are now planning for an 82 percent reduction. It goes without saying that Louisiana's flagship university system would no longer exist in its current form.

At the start, the main campus in Baton Rouge is not the only LSU System campus preparing for financial exigency. At a minimum, four others--the LSU Law Center, LSU at Alexandria, LSU at Eunice, and LSU at Shreveport--will be forced to consider declaring a financial exigency if their budgets have to be reduced by 35 percent. LSU's campuses throughout the state would eliminate nearly 1,500 faculty and staff, and as many courses. The LSU System would lose more than 10,000 students, with LSU's main campus bearing the brunt of the student enrollment crash.

The LSU Health Sciences Center in Shreveport would have to eliminate 170 of its 320 active faculty physicians. Its enrollment would fall to pre-1970s levels, as the school would only be able to teach 90 medical students. Rural central Louisiana would suffer, as LSU at Alexandria would risk losing its accreditation entirely. Its budget has already fallen to such low levels that "any further budget cutting" at all will require financial exigency. LSU at Shreveport, which enrolls more than 4,000 students, would be in a similar position. And the world-class Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge would have to mothball much of its research space, risking LSU's Tier 1 research status.

Even Louisiana's children would feel the effects of dramatic cuts to LSU's budget. Louisiana 4-H, a youth leadership and community service organization with around 47,000 members statewide, would lose some 17,000 members to the budgetary ax. Budget cuts would slash the number of Louisiana youth reached by 4-H's youth development programming by 80,000. The number of kids who could go to 4-H Camp and 4-H University would drop by 35 percent. To the thousands of Louisianans, like myself, for whom 4-H was their first exposure to leadership and the virtues of college education, these numbers are devastating.

Louisiana's budget crisis is destroying LSU as we know it. The path to preserving the LSU System and its flagship campus in Baton Rouge will be hard, but reform is necessary. In the near term, Governor Bobby Jindal and the Louisiana Legislature must resolve their impasse over whether to suspend Louisiana's tax credit program. Louisiana's students need the money more than the business community needs it. And the state must raise its cigarette tax. To do so would improve the fisc while improving public health. But those are merely stopgap measures. Drops in the proverbial bucket.

Louisiana lawmakers must show the moral courage to think beyond elections. The state's constitution is in dire need of reform--or a complete overhaul--to remove rigid budget dedications that prevent the state from thinking creatively to resolve crises like the one at hand. Right now, the Louisiana Legislature can and should, under Article 13, section 2 of the state constitution, call for a constitutional convention. Drastic times call for creative measures. And sometimes the only way out is to start anew.

For the financial contingency plans LSU released in response to my public records request, click here.