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Analysis: Louisiana Higher Education Commissioner’s Job a Tough Sell

BATON ROUGE La. – Wanted: Strong, well educated and experienced leader who can guide at least $290 million in budget cuts, take repeated and angry criticism from state lawmakers, and get paid less than the university chiefs you will oversee and coordinate.

Oh, and, if you are selected, it’s unclear whether the salary you negotiate will be approved.

Those are among the many requirements and impediments for Louisiana’s new higher education commissioner.

It’s probably not the best time for the Board of Regents to be shopping in the job market. At least half a dozen other states are looking to fill similar positions, and those jobs come with fewer strings attached.

The next commissioner, whom the Regents hope to have in place by January, will step into the position as Louisiana’s public colleges brace for the loss of at least $290 million in federal stimulus money, which lawmakers have said they don’t expect to be able to replace with state funding.

Cuts would begin on July 1, 2011, and come on top of $280 million slashed from state funding for higher education over the past two years. College leaders have warned that the reductions would be devastating. Some lawmakers have suggested campuses might have to be closed or consolidated.

A new higher education chief will help make those decisions and sell them to lawmakers.

But the new commissioner will be walking into a tense situation. Legislators have been angry and frustrated with higher education leaders whom they say have been uncooperative and resistant to change.

Lawmakers complain of high-priced administrators unwilling to take pay cuts. They say administrative bureaucracies on college campuses are being protected while professors and staff are laid off, programs are cut and class sizes grow.

They’ve become more suspicious of college leaders and more meddlesome in college   management as their frustration has grown.

As if the situation were not contentious enough, there also was the situation with the previous commissioner, Sally Clausen.

Clausen resigned in July after receiving sharp criticism for quietly retiring from her $425,000-a-year job and then being rehired without ever telling the Board of Regents, to which Clausen reported. She got a $90,000 lump-sum payment for the retirement.

Angry with Clausen and already irritated with higher education officials, lawmakers passed new requirements that the higher education commissioner must get Senate confirmation and the commissioner’s salary must be approved by the Legislature’s joint budget committee.

Anyone who thought the new law was more a warning than a real threat learned otherwise this month when lawmakers rejected the pay package for the man tapped by the Regents to be the interim commissioner.

Legislators said the proposed salary for Tom Layzell, $162,600 for six months of work, was excessive. So, the board assigned the day-to-day duties of supervising college management to four Regents members and senior staff until a permanent commissioner is chosen and hired Layzell as a part-time adviser.

Rejection of the pay package spawned new wrinkles in the search for a permanent commissioner.

Now it’s unclear how much the Regents will be able to pay a new commissioner and whether the salary will be competitive enough in the high-paying higher education industry to attract top-notch candidates.

“What is it that we want? Do we want mediocrity? I mean you do have to pay for talent. It’s the worst message we could have sent to the rest of the country,” said Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, which monitors higher education issues.

Salary isn’t the only stumblingblock for attracting talent. The troublesome higher education climate at the state Capitol should be just as worrisome to those doing the recruiting.

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