Monday, August 25, 2014

Louisiana Universities in Decline

State of the Faculty Senate

Guest Column
Dr. James D. Kirylo
President of the Faculty Senate
Southeastern Louisiana University
Speech Delivered: August 20, 2014
1,600 Words

Welcome back to a new academic year.  It is a privilege to serve on the senate, and your service is greatly appreciated.   Our job here is very important one, indeed.

In preparing my few remarks, I was thinking what I was looking forward to as we begin a new academic year.  Among other things, I am looking forward to another historic year, seeing our football team bringing home an FCS national championship.  Good luck, Lions!

Also while preparing for today, I was thinking about last year’s realities compared to this year’s, and essentially concluded the same.  That is, leadership still seems to be rather elusive in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, especially when it comes to higher education.  You will have to excuse me for questioning why one would recently make the rounds at the Iowa state fair as something more important than what is happening right here in Hammond, LA.

There is one thing about education that we can all bank on and that is this: It is political.  “Take Common Core, for instance,” as the columnist, James Gill recently wrote in The New Orleans Advocate, “Gov. Bobby Jindal was for it before he was against it, and [David] Vitter, who used to be against it, has suddenly come out for it.”  I would say that between those two, with their diametrically opposite epiphanies, they really had that horse going in circles, chasing its tail, on the way to Damascus.  

High standards, of course, have always been important to effective educators, and have always taught them in a global contextualized way. This is nothing new.  But, the idea of standards is not what gets it done.  And the silly war of egos debate to go or not go with PARCC testing won’t get it done, other than lining the pockets of an out-of-control testing industry complex.

What gets it done are excellent teachers; what gets it done is assuring the professionalization of teaching; what gets it done is supporting teachers; and, what gets it done is supporting public spaces, like public education, like public universities, particularly regional ones, like Southeastern Louisiana University.

Now, we all know what universities have endured these past six years in Louisiana.  Yet, I do see a glimmer of hope in a change, perhaps a raise; perhaps not.  And, that is a good thing to be hopeful for.  But I urge all of us to keep an eye on the overall structural trajectory of that change.

Whether it is paying close attention to those voices who push to devalue tenure and academic freedom, and simply see the academy as a place of training to merely serve corporate interests, instead of seeing the academy as a place to receive an education in which critical thinking is fostered in order to attain the very tools, insights, and voice to critique, critically examine, to, if need be, question corporate or institutional interests.

Whether it is paying close attention to the WISE initiative that is now being hashed out, making sure it is not put forward at the expense of marginalizing the humanities.  And, finally, whether it is paying attention to the continuous defunding of higher education, only to place much burden on students who have had to endure a continuous stream of tuition increases the last several years.

Through the Grad Act, the idea of fostering a system that unduly taxes students to fund higher education is not sustainable, is Darwinian in nature, especially heightened in a poor state like ours.  It is a formula for failure, further widening the opportunity gap, and further widening the gap between the proverbial “haves” and “have-nots.”

Perhaps you are aware that students, who graduate, on average, leave with a loan debt of approximately $30,000 dollars. (See: Average Student Loan Debt Jumps 10 percent

What does a teacher do with that kind of debt?  Or any other public servant?  What they do is less likely go into those fields.  In other words, as the scholar Henry Giroux points out, the current system is steering many away from public service.   They simply can’t afford it. (See: Henry A. Giroux: Neoliberalism, democracy and the university as a public sphere

The cumulative effect of this entire trajectory, places the very survival of the public square in jeopardy, meaning public schools, public universities, and any other public entity then become easy pickings for corporate/private interests, which in the end subverts democratic processes, the common good, and the public square.

With all due respect to Sandra Woodley, UL president of our system, I do have to scratch my head when she said that this legislative session “was the most successful legislative session our universities have seen in many years.” (See: Cuts to Louisiana colleges end this legislative session:  

Now, I do understand the context in which she framed that.  Yet, according to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Louisiana’s per student higher education funding has fallen more than any other state between fiscal 2008 and the current budget year.(See: National report puts Louisiana at worst for state higher ed budget cuts

In addition, according to a Washington Post report, the state of Louisiana is expecting a $1.2 billion budget shortfall next year. And this is despite the Jindal administration hiring a New York-based consulting firm for $7.3 million to find ways to generate revenue.  And, this is also at a time when some states are seeing an upswing in their budget surplus. In short, critics are calling Jindal’s handling of the budget his blind-spot. (See: Louisiana projects $1.2 billion budget shortfall,

And higher education has paid a dear price for that blind spot.  We have paid a dear price; students have; the state of Louisiana has.  What do we do? Keep quiet? Not say anything?  Drown these realities watching the tigers, Saints, Lions, or drown them in even something stronger than that? Or move to Colorado where they have found other legal ways for people to get happy?

And, with all due respect to Dr. Crain, the President of Southeastern Louisiana University, I disagree with him when he suggested at convocation that we need to accept that the scarcity of resources is the new normal for higher education in Louisiana.   To do that is tantamount of me saying to my fellow very accomplished colleagues, the ones that are making near poverty wages, trying to raise a family—to accept this scarcity, --to accept their state, their station.  You will never get out of the processed-cheese-give-away-line, and Friday night Spam dinners will continue to remain a staple.

It was one thing, of course, to talk about what a successful legislative session is and dictating what normal is from a position of economic comfort, and quite another thing when listening to this type of talk, scrounging around to pay your house note, to pay your loan debt—in a state of economic hunger, in a position of economic need, working to make a go of it.

Indeed, as my mentor from afar, the Brazilian Paulo Freire, had always suggested, indignation or anger that is on the side of fairness and justice for all is not only a natural reaction to these aforementioned realities, but it is also our responsibility to respond, otherwise we become prey to cynicism, despair, fear, and acceptance of the status quo.

No, I will not accept this new normal, nor should any of you.  Accepting this new normal leaves the Governor off the hook.  Accepting this new normal leaves legislators off the hook.

Accepting this new normal leaves  city and parish officials off the hook.  Accepting this new normal suggests that we are resigned to the fact that Louisiana is not committed to higher education.  Accepting this new normal will further lead us down the road of mediocrity.   If all of that is the case, we all may as well close shop right here, right now and get out of Dodge.

I reject that path.  We are either committed to higher education or we are not.  We either will push back or we will not.  We either believe in the hope of a new normal that recognizes, honors, supports, and celebrates the extraordinary importance of higher education or we will not. 

In the end, as faculty senate president, it is my job to speak up, to assert; it is our job.  I would; we would be derelict of our duties, if we remain silent.  This is not as an act of defiance, but an act of responsible engagement in democratic processes.  Our job here is not to serve the administration; rather our job is to co-exist with them.  We need them; they need us, working hopefully in a harmonious, productive way.  

Certainly, there will be many challenges as we move forward this 2014-2015 academic year, but I remain hopeful, especially involved in bodies like this that possess the unique opportunity, the unique forum, and the unique privilege to make a difference because this town, this region, and this state needs this public institution because of the monumental impact it has on the public good, the economic good, the intellectual good, and the overall furthering of the quality of life in Louisiana. 

Thank you.  

James D. Kirylo latest book is titled A Critical Pedagogy of Resistance.  He can be reached at

Dayne Sherman, Writer & Speaker
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***This message speaks only for the writer, a citizen, not for any present or past employer.***