Story and Photo By: Joan Davis, AN17.com
HAMMOND — The University of Louisiana's president, sitting alongside Southeastern Louisiana University's president, chose not to whine about funding cuts to higher education during a visit to Hammond on Tuesday.
Dr. Sandra K. Woodley, who brings strategic planning and budgeting experience from four other state system offices to her new job in Louisiana, said that she wakes up every day and sometimes in the middle of the night thinking about the challenges before the UL system. She chooses, however, not to dwell on the negative.
"I am extremely optimistic about the future of higher education in Louisiana," she said.
As a "finance person," Woodley said she has looked at the funding challenges the system faces, acknowledging that in the packed room of Hammond Kiwanis Club members, many SLU faculty and retired faculty members, "every single person here is aware of the decline in overall funding for institutions" and the switch from state funding to tuition funding.
The shift from state funding to tuition revenue is difficult because it is not differentiated based on cost, Woodley said. In other words, it doesn't cost more to produce an engineering or business degree than it does a liberal arts degree, yet there are differences in costs.
"This quest to meet the demands for high-skill jobs is more expensive, but institutions don't have enough resources to meet the demand," she said.
Kiwanian Vic Couvillion, a longtime journalist and a former Southeastern faculty member, posed a question to Woodley: "You have worked in a number of states in higher education systems. Do you know of any other state that has this incredible system Louisiana has, that the only thing the Legislature can cut is the education investment?"
She responded: "On a continuum of less flexibility to more flexibility, Louisiana wins the prize for less flexibility."
Woodley said "earmarking challenges" like the ones in Louisiana have been "kind of prevalent" in every state where she has worked. It is not unusual that higher education and health care funding are cut when "things go south," regardless of what the earmarking situation is. Those are the areas to look for when money becomes short because that's where the government spends most of its money.
"We have to be creative and have to be honest with ourselves in Louisiana about what we are able to achieve with the resources we have," Woodley said. "I think that's where we fall short in Louisiana"
She gave as example the well-intentioned program, LA GRAD Act, the desire for performance funding and metrics. Woodley said she has spent her whole life looking at metrics and what they mean and don't mean.
"We have to make sure that when we look at the performance of the institutions, that it is a fair fight," she said. "We must be able to understand what is Southeastern able to do, given what it's meant to do, and the resources it has to do it. And then we have to make a decision in Louisiana. We have to determine what we'll be able to achieve at this level of investment. There is a fixed amount of ability to achieve on the resources we have."
Woodley said John Crain wakes up every day trying to beat the trend on getting more performance for the dollars Southeastern has.
She asked her audience: "What is the Louisiana you want?"
"If we want Louisiana to not be at the bottom of every almost single quality or economic metric, we must do something differently," she said. "There must be investments to be able to pull the trend up."
Woodley said as a finance person she doesn't believe there is a direct correlation between a dollar and a unit of performance.
There are many examples of institutions, like SLU that can outperform their resources. It's not a set rule what are the dollars needed to achieve.
She said Louisiana needs to work on a strategy towards a long-term reinvestment in higher education for the purpose of Louisiana competitiveness.
"We need to reverse the trend, start the investments going back up so that (UL universities) can start to hire and retain the best faculty and do the kinds of research and tech transfer that makes a difference to us in Louisiana, to make our way towards a future that we want."
She said in the coming months, people will see team work between presidents, board members and external stakeholders to map out what the system is doing well and what needs to be done differently and what can be achieved on the money it has.
"I think it's important not to whine about money, and at the same time, what could we achieve for Louisiana if there were additional investment," she said.
Woodley became the eighth president of the UL System in January 2013. She comes to Louisiana from the University of Texas System where she served as vice chancellor for strategic initiatives.