With the current recession, public colleges and universities nationwide are seeing pinches, from government funding, from enrollments, from grants, from donations, and elsewhere. Colleges in few states are as hard hit as Louisiana, where cuts this academic year may amount to 35% of the full funding slowly built up by the previous two state administrations.  Yet more cuts are expected in the Fall.

Louisiana higher education has faced budget cuts repeatedly over the decades. In the 1973 Constitutional Convention, the decision was made to protect state budgets from the political strong-arming that generations of governors had wielded at will. Unfortunately, higher education was without strong leadership, and the schools fought among themselves over funding. As a result, only healthcare and higher ed were omitted from constitutional protection, and both regularly face draconian cuts.

But the current cuts represent more than the cyclical crise du jour, and the reasons for that should be of interest and concern to all of us in Louisiana.

The first unusual aspect of our current situation is the depth of the cuts. Given the absence of budgetary protection and the lack of cooperation among colleges, it was only a matter of time before some combination of economy and political leadership would lead to a catastrophic situation. The heuristic point here is that when higher education has no strong leadership, schools do not work together, and all suffer.

And it is always ironic when institutions of higher learning do not learn very quickly, or sometimes not at all: even now, the schools are squabbling behind the scenes, trying to disproportionately shove budget cuts onto each other. The University of New Orleans is one of two research institutions in the LSU System, and longtime Chancellor Tim Ryan was recently removed from leadership of UNO for fighting the cuts, and for fighting other seemingly punitive measures-- all as the school is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina. Dr. Ryan has gone public with his concerns, and the October 18 issue of the Baton Rouge Business Report published a concerning interview with him. Now the Southern University System has created further confusion by suggesting that UNO should be moved under their administration.

The smaller schools are also worried, and with good reason. Some of the larger schools are suggesting that the smaller schools should be cut back or shuttered, even though the money gained would only slightly mitigate the impact of the cuts. There is a side lesson here: without strong political leaders, in a financial shortfall-- including those shortfalls willingly created through tax cuts and budget reductions-- the fat does not get cut. To the contrary: the fattest are typically the strongest, and in a crisis, the strong generally pursue self-protection and self-service, without concern for the larger community, nor even informed concern for their own long-term stability.

The second insight from the crisis is the impact of Louisiana's term limits. Term limits have been a constant topic of consideration since the founding of the nation, and continues today. Proposals for term limits generally come from the conservative side of the spectrum; this is ironic, given that the founder of philosophical conservatism, Edmund Burke, argued that statesmanship was no different than any other profession or craft, one that required years of practice and reflection to master.

Burke seems to have been proven right in Louisiana:  political observers contend that term limits have created a void in state leadership, one that was quickly filled by lobbyists, career bureaucrats, and the governor's office. The governor, however, is also term limited, so the real power devolves into the hands of lobbyists and bureaucrats-- neither of whom ever answer to the public in any direct way.

Certainly, term limits mean that there are never-ending waves of idealistic new statesmen to improve the democracy. But each wave will be greeted by highly-experienced corporate representatives and civil servants who understand the rules and the game so much better, and who know they only have to wait for term limits to eliminate any truly committed public servant. The take-home point here is that term limits do not eliminate government-as-usual, but accelerate it.  Politicians who were difficult to remove are replaced by lobbyists and bureaucrats who are impossible to remove.