Leadership & Governance

Speaking Out in Troubled Times

On Leadership: F. King Alexander

April 27, 2017

Produced by Carmen Mendoza and Julia Schmalz

F. King Alexander, president of Louisiana State University, says he will continue to speak out for public higher education and against politicians who undermine it. But he sometimes wonders where the voices of his peers are.


ERIC KELDERMAN: Hi, I'm Eric Kelderman, senior reporter of The Chronicle of Higher Education, and this morning, we're happy to have F. King Alexander, the president of Louisiana State University. You've been on that campus for four years now, and I would say that, I think this is right, your campus, and your state, has had the greatest cuts to public higher education of any state in the nation.

Certainly, you felt under threat, and you've been an outspoken critic of some of the policies that have led to those budget cuts. Many other presidents in higher education take a softer approach to tread carefully when talking about elected officials. Would you like to see some of your colleagues be more outspoken, be bolder in their defense of public higher ed?

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F. KING ALEXANDER: Well, I certainly would. I think there's a lot of federal issues, as well as the state issues, that we're all wrestling with. Many of them are quite similar. They just come in different waves. Our wave hit pretty hard. We've took about 16 cuts in nine years. We have a governor now who supports higher ed, who has come through and will be working to get us more reinvestment into higher ed. And our legislative leaders, I think, that we've had enough done to us, but we have taken a decade's worth of hits, but it's reflective of what's going on around the United States too.

I know my colleagues, from Colorado, to Michigan, to North Carolina, are dealing with very similar issues about state disinvestment, and that truly is the big issue that I think we need to address, and start getting it addressed here in Washington.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Sure. At the federal level, of course, we have a new administration in the White House. We have a new education secretary, and in some ways, I think folks in higher ed are feeling a little bit of threat from those folks. The secretary has said that she believes that faculty are telling students what to think on campuses. She's questioned the value of a four-year degree, and said that too many students are going to four-year colleges. The president has, on his Twitter account, threatened UC-Berkeley with federal funding for not, in his view, protecting free speech. What's your view of the new administration, and how much of a threat do you think the new approach is?

F. KING ALEXANDER: Well, I think they're settling in. Certainly, there's always been a push that campuses are being too liberal, or indoctrinating students. These are young adults, and we've got conservative faculty in engineering and business, as well as we have many liberal faculty in the humanities. Our campuses are bastions of free speech and free thought, and I think those attacks, they show up about every four years. I'm not too worried about those types of attacks. I am a little more worried that if they don't take this issue of public financing by the states, and affordability on behalf of the states to maintain affordability, this administration is going to see the continued federalization of higher education.

Currently, states are down about $75 billion in what they spend for higher ed, and the federal government's up to about $180 billion, and that trend is going to continue if we continue doing the same things without addressing this issue of a de facto federalization which is what's happening all around us.

ERIC KELDERMAN: The education secretary has made it clear that she thinks that the federal government should play a smaller role in higher education. At the same time, there's calls for rollbacks of federal regulations. Would that sort of approach — cutting regulations on higher ed — would that be in some way helpful to your institution?

F. KING ALEXANDER: Probably not. We're completely comfortable with transparency and accountability. In fact, we helped craft the College Scorecard, to tell parents and students what our graduates are doing. What they earn compared to other institutions. How little, limited debt they're in, compared to the other students around the country. I think this is useful consumer information that's been lacking in higher ed. I'm not as worried about the reduction of regulations.

I am a little worried about reducing the wrong regulations on many of the for-profit institutions that have gone out of business because of massive default rates. And if we remove those important regulations, we're in for a whole new set of fraud and abuse on behalf of many for-profit institutions, that really do throw our Pell Grants in jeopardy, and it's the reason why we lost summer Pell through the first wave of those about three years ago.

ERIC KELDERMAN: For several years now, you've been promoting this — what you call a federal-state partnership, using the power of the federal government to incentivize states to maintain funding for public higher education. What are some other key ways that you think the federal government could step in and use its role to help your institutions?

F. KING ALEXANDER: Well, it's pretty apparent to me, I'm not a big advocate of putting more money into a Pell Grant if states are going to continue backing their money out. And say, what's happening is we're seeing a supplanting going on. Many of our legislators are continually hitting higher education — cutting higher ed.

I'm in a situation where I have to almost increase tuition and fees by about $450. So, what does a $200 increase in a Pell Grant actually do at the end of the day? The federal government has an important role in helping the states stabilize their funding for public higher ed and reinvesting.

Otherwise, the federal government is going to pick up the lion's share of all the costs, which is already happening, and will continue to do so. I think the federal government has an important role, and has done this since 1862, when they had a Land-Grant Act that incentivize states to start land-grant universities.

SSIG was a federal-state matching program that encouraged states in 1972 to adopt state student aid programs, and it worked very effectively. The stimulus packages had maintenance-of-effort provisions that stopped states at the 2006 funding level, otherwise, they couldn't get stimulus funds. I think this leverage has proven, again and again, very effective, and I think the federal government needs to use its leverage to encourage better state behavior and better state investment.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Terrific. Well, I think is the conversation we're going to have maybe several times over the next four years. Really appreciate you coming by today, Mr. Alexander.

F. KING ALEXANDER: Eric, it's great to be back. Great to see you.

Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at eric.kelderman@chronicle.com.