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Governor candidates pitch plans to keep LSU competitive as a flagship

The LSU Student Union sits in central campus on Monday, March 20, 2023, on Highland Road in Baton Rouge, La.
Matthew Perschall
Louisiana Illuminator
The LSU Student Union sits in central campus on Monday, March 20, 2023, on Highland Road in Baton Rouge, La.

This story was originally published on the Louisiana Illuminator.

Six of the seven major candidates for Louisiana governor presented their ideas to keep LSU competitive as the state’s flagship university at a forum held Wednesday evening at the university’s Student Union. Just one mentioned tenure, one of the most important policy issues in higher education.

Former Secretary of Transportation Shawn Wilson, the leading Democrat in the race, was the only candidate to speak on the importance of protecting tenure. Higher education leaders view tenure as a key part of academic freedom at public universities and a shield against political, business and religious interference.

“If we want to protect the flagship, we have to protect the faculty, we have to protect tenure,” Wilson said.

Tenure provides an indefinite academic appointment to qualifying faculty members who have demonstrated excellence in their field. Academics with tenure can only be terminated for cause, and it typically only happens in extreme circumstances.

Some conservative politicians have pushed for regular tenure reviews in an effort to remove faculty who they feel push liberal agendas in their classrooms.

In previous interviews with the Illuminator, state Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, expressed support for tenure, while Republican Stephen Waguespack and independent Hunter Lundy expressed interest in reevaluating tenure.

Faculty at Louisiana’s public universities have emphasized that doing away with tenure, which they view as adding immense non-monetary value to their compensation, would be especially problematic in light of the state’s low faculty pay. Louisiana ranks among the worst in the region for higher ed salaries, and its universities would have even more difficulty recruiting top faculty without the availability of tenure.

Waguespack, a former top aide to former Gov. Bobby Jindal and chief lobbyist for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, advocated for prioritizing academic facilities over athletic facilities.

“You don’t find a basketball gym before you fund a library,” Waguespack said, referencing money set aside for a new basketball arena at LSU. The legislature did allocate more money to build a new library at LSU, but critics have noted the university hasn’t included the project among its construction priorities for many years, despite its poor shape. The school did receive money to replace the Pete Maravich Assembly Center after a request to lawmakers from head women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey.

Lundy, a trial attorney from Lake Charles, also mentioned prioritizing academic facilities.

State Treasurer John Schroder, a Republican, spoke on the importance of the LSU Board of Supervisors. Schroder, who has made targeting corruption a key part of his campaign, has criticized the way former governors have appointed political donors to the board.

“Our board members are more concerned about everything except you,” Schroder told students in the audience.

As governor, Schroder said he would appoint members who would handle the business of the university and not consider politics at all.

“The governor needs to get out of the way,” Schroder said, although he added that the governor needs to be able to hold their appointees accountable.

Waguespack said he wants to appoint board members who would be supportive of LSU President William Tate’s Scholarship First Agenda, which emphasizes academics in five key areas of science, technology, engineering and math.

For much of his allotted two minutes on the question, Waguespack praised Tate.

“President Tate, with the scholarship versus agenda, has a great game plan. Now we need some board of supervisors and the governor, the legislature who understands it and wants to help him,” Waguespack said.

Nelson emphasized the economic development capacity of a research university like LSU.

“I look at universities like LSU more like an economic development opportunity, not just higher education,” Nelson said.

When a top-tier researcher chooses to come to LSU, bringing their research dollars with them, they also bring their staff and attract graduate students to study under them, who in turn create economic value of their own, Nelson said. To maximize this, he advocated for spending the money the state uses to lure businesses to the state — calling it “corporate welfare” — on research.

“We throw it away on companies that don’t really use it and they go, and so I think focusing on that, attracting great professors, building great facilities… and then paying stipends for grad students and matching grants for federal research, I think you’ve made every university, really, a startup incubator,” Nelson said.

State Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, advocated for removing conditions that have led to massive cuts to higher education during the Jindal administration’s budget crisis.

Higher education and health care are the only two large portions of the state budget without constitutional or statutory projection, meaning they are the first to get axed when a budget crisis hits.

Hewitt said she would prioritize eliminating some statutory dedications for other parts of the state budget so lawmakers and the governor have more agility if a budget crisis were to happen again.

The frontrunner in the race, Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry, skipped the LSU forum. He has yet to participate in an event where he would have to share the stage with his opponents in the Oct. 14 primary, though he has committed to take part in Friday’s televised debate in Lafayette.