Nicholls State on life support?

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The one and only time I met Bobby Jindal was in the spring of 1999. At that time he was Gov. Mike Foster’s top man in education and he was visiting Nicholls for something or other. What impressed and thoroughly surprised me about the young Jindal was he knew who I was.

I had just been awarded a Fulbright scholarship to teach college courses in Latvia for a year in two schools, one with a Russian approach to education, the other with a Swedish approach.

Jindal immediately thanked me for applying for and receiving the grant, and told me other professors in Louisiana needed to do the same. My wife, who happened to be with me that day, was mightily impressed that Jindal knew who I was. Both of us were even more impressed when, a few days later, I received a handwritten letter from him once again thanking me for getting the Fulbright, again saying that Louisiana was well served when its professors had noteworthy accomplishments.

Not one person at Nicholls wrote me a note thanking me, but Jindal did. I have never forgotten that.

Fast forward 11 years and how things have changed.

Jindal is determined to balance the state budget, and I think that’s a good thing. That’s a good thing if it doesn’t mean gutting higher education across the state. That’s a good thing if it doesn’t mean destroying the smaller institutions like Nicholls, McNeese State, Northwestern, and others. After all, even though Baton Rouge and state level higher education governance have historically cut schools based on its percentage share of state appropriation, the result is not balance, nor is it fair. The smaller universities can’t absorb these cuts nearly as well as the larger institutions like LSU can.

In his recent message to the university, Nicholls President Stephen Hulbert addressed that issue. He writes that in Nicholls’ current situation, “state funding per full-time equivalent student is already about $1,275 LESS (my emphasis) per student than the average for all four-year public, statewide institutions,” adding that although the funds needed to keep it viable are small, the percentage share of budget cuts is substantial.

In his message, President Hulbert essentially asks for “support and attention to empower Nicholls to help itself.” In addition, he asks the Louisiana Legislature to appreciate the value of Nicholls as an excellent regional university and as an economic engine in a seven-parish area. He also knows that many legislators recognize the problem.

But it is important that the governor recognizes that as well. Is it time – well past time – that the governor takes a leadership role before our junior colleges and four-years universities are so diminished that they are inoperable.

In the future, this state has to change the rules, specifically that henceforth health care and high education not be the only areas cut to balance the budget. Let’s do the fair thing, that is, let’s open the door to cuts across the board, to every agency, to every bureaucratic office in the state.

But that’s for the future. Right now, we don’t have the time for constitutional conventions. We only have time for leadership from the man who once told me he appreciated what we academics do. I believed in that man and I hope he is still that same man today.

By law, we need to balance the budget. How about we finally do it in a fair and reasonable way. If we don’t, higher education in Louisiana will be a misnomer. And the result: Louisiana will sink lower in the eyes of every other state because we are neglecting our children now and in the future.

We will be laughed at for ruining our greatest asset, our kids. We will be laughed at because we will have worked real hard to place us 50th on yet another state list. We will be laughed at because we will have allowed an education system to collapse under the flimsy excuse that we needed to balance the budget no matter what. We will be laughed at because we couldn’t, or wouldn’t, find an answer to a problem that is clearly solvable.

What’s the old line? Throw out the baby with the dishwater.

– Lloyd Chiasson Jr. is a Distinguished Service Professor in mass communication at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana. Dr. Chiasson co-authored “Reporter’s Notebook,” and served as co-author and editor of “The Press in Times of Crisis,” “The Press on Trial,” “Three Centuries of American Media” and “Illusive Shadows.” He is also the author of a novel, “Stutterstep.”