If it weren't so tragic, it would be comical: Gov. Bobby Jindal releases an autobiography immodestly titled Leadership and Crisis — just as he continues to show so little leadership amid Louisiana's largest budget crisis ever. The fact that Jindal formerly held leadership positions in the two areas of state government that will see the deepest cuts next year — higher education and health care — makes the title of his book doubly ironic. The governor swears his book, which hit the shelves amid tomes by former President George W. Bush, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, is not a precursor to a bid for national office. He says the same thing about his frequent fundraising trips outside Louisiana, many of which take him to states with early presidential caucuses and primaries. Are we the only ones who see a pattern here? Jindal says (or writes) one thing, but does quite another.
It's time to take some of your own medicine, Governor, and show some leadership. So far, Jindal's prescription for higher education has been a combination of handing off the problem to others, blaming colleges and universities instead of addressing the problem head-on, and spreading the pain around rather than making targeted, surgical cuts. It's time for some straight talk — and real leadership — from our governor on higher education.
Let's start the conversation by acknowledging what too many in state government want to avoid admitting: Louisiana has too many four-year public colleges and universities and too few resources to fund them all adequately. During times of high oil prices and engorged state coffers, we manage this problem by throwing more money at it. We no longer can avoid the obvious. Louisiana has fewer than 4.5 million people, yet we have 14 four-year public colleges and universities. By comparison, Florida has more than four times the population of Louisiana but only 11 four-year public universities.
Census figures show that only 18.7 percent of Louisiana residents have college degrees (compared to a national average of 24.4 percent). Louisiana public colleges and universities have the lowest graduation rate in the South (37 percent), compared to a 52 percent average among southern states. Some of Louisiana's public universities have produced centers of excellence, but overall, public higher education in Louisiana can charitably be described as mediocre. Jindal's tack of ordering broad cuts — or diverting federal education funds from K-12 to higher ed, as he did last week — amounts to little more than spreading around the mediocrity.
To be fair, the governor is correct when he says public colleges and universities are not getting the job done. However, it's hardly fair to blame universities for a low graduation rate when so many K-12 public schools fail miserably at producing graduates who are ready for college. It's also important to note that while Louisiana ranks high among states in the level of public support for higher education, tuitions at state colleges and universities rank among the lowest in the country. Passage of the GRAD Act last year, which Jindal supported (as did this newspaper), offers some long-term hope for offsetting cuts with modest tuition hikes, but current and foreseeable cuts far outpace imminent tuition and fee increases.So how can Jindal lead?
He should start by leading a serious discussion of merging some public colleges and universities and converting others to community colleges. This discussion should include factors for determining which institutions survive intact and which must change, such as nearness to population centers, historic enrollment and graduation rates and number of nationally recognized centers of excellence, to name a few. Jindal also should suggest where duplicative degree and graduate programs could be trimmed — and he should lead the fight for one board of higher education. This will bring a political backlash, but that's what real leadership is all about: facing down one's detractors and defending a position you know to be sound in the long run.
Overall, Jindal should set Louisiana on a path toward higher education excellence by right-sizing the system and then funding it appropriately. This is not an easy path. Then again, real leadership requires more than just talking — or writing — about it.