Louisiana students protest budget cuts

Jindal says the state is not getting its money’s worth in education

This was the lead story published in The Hullabaloo on November 30, 2010.

A crowd of approximately 500 students from at least eight different universities gathered Nov. 10 on the state Capitol steps in Baton Rouge, La. to protest imminent massive cuts to public higher education.

Joining in chants such as “Where’s Bobby Jindal?” and “Stand Up,” the students rallied to voice their outrage with the legislators responsible for slashing university budgets by 35 percent to make up for the state’s projected $2.42 billion budget shortfall over the next three years.

“Collectively, we are stronger than the legislature,” LSU student Ariel Gratch said. Gratch addressed the crowd of students from various public universities in Louisiana.

Sporting symbolic Band-Aids from head to toe, students waved signs ranging from the angry – “Fight back! Chop from the top!” — to the humorous — “Iff you ken reede this, thanck Bobby Jindal” — to the informative — “1,200,000,000 = LSU’s Annual Contribution to the region” — while police looked on, standing behind a coffin that read “R.I.P. Higher Education.”

Students directed much of their anger toward Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has repeatedly said that public universities waste resources and claimed that their collective six-year graduation rate of 38 percent is “unacceptable.”

“My message to college administrators and everyone else is that we must find ways to live within our means and deliver more value,” Jindal wrote in a “Houma Courier” op-ed Nov. 4.

“Budget cuts may result in fewer sabbaticals and may force professors to spend more time in the classroom teaching and interacting with students, but that is a good thing and will result in a better education for our students,” Jindal wrote.

The budget cuts are the result of a statewide fiscal deficit. Because of restrictions in the state constitution, the only way for the legislature to balance the budget is by cutting higher education and health care.

Jindal has recently traveled around the country and appeared on national television, both to campaign for other Republicans and to promote his newly released book, “Leadership and Crisis.”

“He’s trying to spin this whole idea of ‘more for less,’” said Rosalind Cook, a Tulane professor of Southern politics. “But unless individuals call him out on the higher education cuts, he’s able to portray himself to rest of the country as balancing Louisiana’s budget responsibly.”

Students said that if timely graduation is the goal, slashing budgets is counterproductive as classes become fewer in number and larger in size.

“It’s almost impossible to graduate in four years when you’re working full time to pay for tuition, and they’re cutting class sections because there aren’t enough professors,” said Lamark Hughes, Grambling State University student president. “If you have kids, it gets even harder.”

Many students and faculty members criticized the notion that graduation rates reflect the quality of Louisiana universities.

“You have to look at the long term: what they’re doing with their education [and] how society benefits overall from their successes,” LSU biology professor Dominique Homberger said. “Some of my best students have taken more than four years to graduate. ”

UNO student body president John Mineo said that both legislators and universities have a part to play in preserving the quality of their institutions.

After the administration laid off 70 of UNO’s initial 90 janitors, students planned to collectively clean up their dilapidated classrooms.

“We’re the paying students, so normally we shouldn’t have to clean our own buildings but… we want to show them we’re making the best of what we have been given,” Mineo said. “When the legislature opens, we’ll say, ‘Look we’re not just whining. We’ll do the extra work to take care of higher education — now what can you do to help us with it?’”

LSU students said in board meetings that their tuition helps fund non-academic parts of the university, so cuts should be made to those areas first.

“All these students are here not for fun, but because we want to learn,” said Bradley Wood, an LSU graduate student and co-founder of the group Proud Students, which helped organize the rally.

But while some schools may still have room to reduce spending and still preserve academics, some students feel their institutions have withstood all the cuts they can take.

“There is no more fat — now we’re cutting into bone,” said Caina Munson, the student president at LSU-Alexandria, where they have cut academic programs such as the student writing center. “We’re mostly a commuter campus, where everyone works full-time… and so it takes a direct toll when tuition rises.”

While many of the students gathered at the Capitol had skipped class and travelled for hours to get to the protest, LSU Baton Rouge students were noticeably underrepresented despite their three-mile proximity.

“The administration has done a good job so far of masking the cuts, so students are largely unaware [of the consequences],” LSU student government president J Hudson said. “But now these cuts are going to hurt our academics.”

The LSU System recently announced a midyear $35-million cut, on top of the $280 million lost since 2008.

James Carville, Tulane Professor of Practice, wrote in an Oct. 24 Times-Picayune op-ed, “To our friends at the Louisiana Capitol: We are now at a point where we are jeopardizing this state’s future. We cannot cut our way to excellence.”

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