By Jacob Batte
Published: Friday, January 23, 2015 at 8:11 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 23, 2015 at 8:11 p.m.
Despite reports of nearly $400 million in cuts to higher education that could close up to 15 university and two-year campuses across the state, local legislators and education administrators remain confident Nicholls State University will remain relatively untouched.
State officials have projected that proposed cuts to higher education could range anywhere from $200 million to $380 million when Gov. Bobby Jindal releases his 2016 budget next month.
Those numbers, Nicholls State President Bruce Murphy said in an interview, are still up in the air.
“We don’t want to light our hair on fire, we don’t want to wring our hands, because we don’t know what that number is yet,” Murphy said. “What we do know is that we will continue to be a strong institution, continue to meet the needs of the region, continue to provide excellent programs. That’s the business that we’re in and we’re going to continue to do that.”
Officials have said cuts that large would force legislators to close some campuses. Of the 15 locations, none of which have been named publicly, three could be from the UL System.
The projected cuts are larger than the budget for the Louisiana Community and Technical College System and more than six times the budget of Nicholls State.
All public institutions would be negatively affected, some more than others, UL System President Sandra Woodley. The magnitude of the cuts is “difficult for everyone to get their arms around” but isn’t likely to happen, she said.
“We don’t feel like the Legislature is going to allow this to happen,” she said. “I think our legislative and our business and industry partners have recognized we need more education and not less. We’re focused on finding a solution allowing us to make gains and not go backwards.”
State Sen. Norby Chabert, R-Houma, agreed.
“I don’t think there’s a will in the Legislature, despite what the governor proposes, to close any campuses,” he said.
Officials say regional universities like Nicholls should remain relatively unharmed if cuts are required. This is primarily because of its value for the region. Almost 90 percent of Nicholls students come from surrounding parishes.
“It’s really important to save that,” Woodley said.
Should the Legislature be forced to close a campus, Chabert said legislators would focus on population and regional impact.
“We’re the fifth-largest market in the state. The population is there and justified for having a regional university. You look at north Louisiana, you’ve got four four-year institutions within 30 minutes drive of each other,” Chabert said.
The real question, Murphy said, is what level of education the state wants to provide.
Higher education cuts in Louisiana totaled around $700 million from 2008 to 2013, the largest per-student cuts of any state.
Legislators said the state needs to undergo a massive spending structure reform or universities will continue to face crisis moments like this one. Continuing cuts could cause universities to cut beneficial programs and could cause teachers, uncertain about their future, to leave, said state Rep. Joe Harrison, R-Napoleanville.
“There’s no coordination of what we’re doing with industry and what we’re doing with education. We can’t give away all that we’re giving and expect for higher education to survive,” he said.
About 30 percent of Nicholls’ nearly $55 million budget comes from the state. The rest comes from self-generated revenues, namely tuition and course fees.
In 2009, Nicholls received 60.6 percent of its money from the state budget. In 2013, the college received less than 30 percent. The difference has been made up in cuts to faculty and staff, courses, programs and continual increases in tuition — about 10 percent each year since 2010.
Nicholls’ second-year president said he isn’t ignoring the talk. Earlier this month, he and his University Council began talks of contingency plans should cuts be enacted. Specific plans, he said, had not been reached.
“We need to think about what could happen … talk about the things that become our core, things that yield a high return on investment,” Murphy said. “Whatever we do, we’ll continue to do it at an excellent level. We’ll continue to provide a great education. What that looks like may change and we may change how we go about it, but that’s our mission and that’s what we’ll do.”
During his biannual State of the University speech, Murphy said the university needs to increase enrollment by almost 2,000 students and cut “unsustainable programs and events.” According to early projections, Nicholls is expecting fall enrollment to decline for a second consecutive year.
Staff Writer Jacob Batte can be reached at 448-7635 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ja_batte.