Louisiana Higher Education Commissioner Defends Southern University Action

BATON ROUGE, La. – The state commissioner of higher education has defended Southern University declaring a financial emergency, and also discussed the evolving future of Louisiana’s colleges at LSU as part of his ongoing statewide listening tour.

The Advocate of Baton Rouge reports Commissioner Jim Purcell, who moved to Baton Rouge earlier this year, said Southern declared the emergency, called financial exigency, in the face of declining state funds and student enrollment and an inadequate budget plan.

“Exigency was probably something that had to happen,” Purcell said on Wednesday.

Declaring exigency allows administrators more leeway in furloughing and terminating faculty and eliminating academic programs.

Exigency is historically considered a serious blemish that could scare away current and potential employees and students. No public Louisiana university had declared exigency since the University of New Orleans did so after Hurricane Katrina.

Purcell addressed the issue after Southern Faculty Senate President Sudhir Trivedi said he was surprised Purcell and the Louisiana Board of Regents supported Southern’s efforts to “gut the faculty.”

LSU Faculty Senate President Kevin Cope said college faculty statewide are “completely demoralized.”

Regents Chairman Bob Levy, of Ruston, said state budget cuts to higher education have necessitated bold decisions, even though he had “concerns about financial exigency and how dramatic … and traumatic it can be.”

“Southern University has been bleeding students for quite some time,” Levy said. “I’m more concerned about why that’s happened. Financial exigency is the response to that. It’s not the cause.”

Levy said exigency could put Southern in a “tailspin” or it could “cauterize the wound” during a difficult time of higher education budget cuts statewide. “We haven’t been able to catch our breath (for three years),” he said.

As for other changes, Purcell said this month a state Governance Commission for higher education will start making legislative recommendations later this month for revamped organizational structures as well as tuition and financial aid policies.

Purcell said toughened college admission standards going into effect next year also would produce changes.

“A lot of universities aren’t going to have the freshmen that they had,” Purcell said. “A lot of community colleges are going to have more students than they’ve ever had.”

LSU Chancellor Michael Martin said student loan debt is an issue, but that the nationwide “assault” on student loan debt as some kind of “evil” is overblown.

“To me, I think it’s a wonderful investment,” Martin said, arguing that it is better to develop some loan debt for education investments than for buying a new car.

Several college and community leaders also bemoaned the state’s high school dropout rate and the poor college readiness of many high school graduates.