Nicholls State on life support?

James Cantrelle
September 28, 2010
Lafourche District 13 school board
September 30, 2010

Nicholls State is dead.

At least, somebody, or bodies, in Baton Rouge is trying to kill it.

The question is why. Since 2008 the Louisiana Legislature, with the approval of Gov. Bobby Jindal, has seen fit – supposedly in the name of efficiency – to cut Nicholls’ budget 29.4 percent or $10.6 million. Try living on your present salary with a 30 percent cut and see how it affects you. Now, in typical Louisiana fashion, the Legislature is considering a possible 35 percent cut on top of that.

Upon hearing the news, Larry Howell, special assistant to Nicholls President Stephen Hulbert, put it succinctly: “An additional 35 percent cut will devastate this institution and cause irreversible harm.”

No kidding. If this cut goes through, Nicholls will be forced to cut what simply can’t be cut – quality education. According to Howell, programs will have to be eliminated. Not one or two, but a bucket load. The cuts will probably be based on enrollment in every program, and that could mean the elimination of 18 majors. Programs that are probably safe are nursing, accounting, culinary arts, education, biology, business administration, management, marketing and applied sciences. That’s it.

And guess what: The cuts will affect about 2,000 students, rip the heart out of the university, and perhaps worst of all, cripple the five-parish area Nicholls serves. This is no overstatement. Nicholls’ financial impact to the region is more than $200 million a year.

The situation is so bad that Thursday President Hulbert called a town meeting to clarify the issues and to rally support for the school. Students, faculty and staff heard the chilling news, although most already knew Nicholls was in quicksand. Now they know how deep.

First and foremost, many students in the area will be forced to attend other schools to get the degrees they are seeking. And those that aren’t directly affected will be in ways that hadn’t anticipated. The enrollment in basic courses will certainly swell to ridiculous numbers and teachers will be hard pressed to provide anything remotely resembling quality education. And many of the good teachers will be gone. Why stay in this type of environment when there are more attractive opportunities elsewhere: escape to another state and another university.

Back to the students who will be forced to leave because their program doesn’t exist anymore. What are their options? Drive to New Orleans? Baton Rouge? Lafayette? Most won’t because they can’t. Most of Nicholls’ students work. Many commute because they need to save money by living at home. And no school in the state serves more first-generation college students than Nicholls. So if the students can’t get educated, what happens to the region? How is the economy impacted? Will it become as stagnant as those in the know suspect? The possibilities are endless and not one has the glass close to half full.

Nicholls isn’t just important to this region of the state; it is its lifeblood. Its tentacles reach out to almost crevice of the five-parish area and affect us in ways that we often don’t appreciate. Economically, socially and culturally. Maybe that is the way of higher education and universities. We put their emblems on our cars and fly their flag in front of the house, we go to ball games or other events they have, but then we go about our daily business and forget what the university means to us.

Well, it means more than you think. And if you sit back and allow this travesty to higher education happen, I can promise you will live to regret it. I hope you readers, as well as the legislators and our government, understand that.

I’m not prepared to say there is a bias toward this part of the state in Baton Rouge, but it makes one wonder. I wonder if because we supply the oil and the fish, that the powers that be think we don’t need higher education down the bayou. Maybe there is a method to this economic madness. Maybe the idea in some quarters is as simple as this: let’s just keep’em down on the farm.

– 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.”