Sold Down a Lazy River: LSU’s Shallow Symbol of the State of Higher Education

In a recent article on the “customer service” mentality that has attended the corporatization of  higher education in the United States in recent decades, titled “In College Turmoil Signs of a Changed Relationship with Students,” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni noted:

Colleges have spruced up dormitories and diversified dining options, so that students unwind in greater comfort and ingest with more choice than ever before. To lure students and keep them content, colleges have also fashioned state-of-the-art fitness centers, sophisticated entertainment complexes and other amenities with a relevance to learning that is oblique at best. . . .

Campus water parks — with pools, slides and man-made rivers — have become just common enough that when Louisiana State University recently plotted its own, it decided that the river should spell out the letters L.S.U., so that it was no mere mimic of all those other, lesser collegiate waterways.

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The column was published just as the Louisiana legislature was in session, under the watchful eye of Louisiana’s new Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards, and considering massive cuts to state education funding to make a dent in the enormous budget deficit left by his Republican predecessor, Bobby Jindal. At one point Jindal had proposed cutting the state’s education budget by as much as 82 percent.

As a recent returnee to the state of Louisiana and strong supporter of both Governor Edwards and higher education, I was dismayed to learn of L.S.U.’s decision to allocate increasingly endangered funds to an $85 million recreation center (UREC) upgrade that would include a “lazy river” pool. Were adult, voting-age, draft-age students at the state’s flagship university really being given a “kiddie pool”? Sadly, a welter of news articles confirmed that the plan was going forward and that a new university recreation center is scheduled to open in Spring 2017.

Described as an “amenity popular among new students,” the pool was contemplated to serve as a “hot recruiting tool” that would draw many more new students to campus. Student fees at L.S.U. and other Louisiana universities were said to be skyrocketing to pay for these new amenities. Lazy pools and similar amenities were also starting to be seen in “luxury”-style apartments being constructed in Baton Rouge to accommodate L.S.U. students. It is part of a trend toward luxury college housing that has been sweeping the nation in recent years.

Indeed, though some of the most debated and difficult cuts to Louisiana higher education in the recent legislative session have been the cuts now slated to the state’s TOPS (Taylor Opportunity for Students) program, which began as a combination “need-based” and “merit-based” scholarship initiative to assist lower-income students afford a college education, but have evolved into a middle and even upper middle-class perk, as well. TOPS funds cannot be used to cover increasing student fees–thus, the burden of these fees can be expected to fall disproportionately on students who can least afford them.While TOPS students of lesser means (“need-based”) will struggle to pay these fees, TOPS students with more resources (“merit-based”) can direct the money they don’t need to spend on tuition to amenities-driven apartment rentals and other non-educational expenses.

There are multiple problems with this scenario.  First of all, in confirmation of Frank Bruni’s report of the student “customer service” and its effect on universities, the L.S.U. UREC expansion and lazy pool have been defended by students as an appropriate use of their money. The decision to increase student fees to pay for the new rec center came about as a result of a 2009 survey of students and a 2011 vote by the L.S.U. student government. So, in a certain respect, the lazy pool is a very clear case of students harming students.

Nonetheless, as one fraternity blog put it, in an article lamenting the opposition to the lazy pool by the “Fun Police,” particularly L.S.U. Faculty Senate President Kevin Cope, who has publicly criticized the project:

Unfortunately, there are some people out there who don’t want us to have nice things. They live for ruining our fun. These fun-suckers aren’t too happy about building the river since LSU is in the midst of the whole bankruptcy thing. . . .

from what I’ve been told by our resident LSU guy, the money that funded the project was voted on by students back in 2011 for that exact purpose. The students voted to raise their student fees to fund it, and it’s not touching any of the budget. It was earmarked exactly for that, and they can’t change it anyway. . .

The best thing about this whole project? They put this baby right behind a bunch of fraternity houses too. I give it two days before that water is forever unclean.

However, other faculty responses suggest a more solicitous attitude toward student recreational decision-making. After posting comments critical of the L.S.U. students’ decision on social media, the present author was contacted by one L.S.U. professor objecting to my questioning the wisdom of students of the precarious college age.