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.
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.
Well, any attack on Louisiana’s beloved flagship university (not to mention its sports teams) has to be considered a “nuclear option” in local public debate. And there is a wider discussion going on nation-wide about the coddling of college students and even the possibility of raising the age of legal majority to 21–all of which could be taken to mean that criticism of these young adults should be undertaken with the delicacy of reprimanding toddlers.
But to hear this level of solicitude for student recreational decision-making from the very professors charged with educating students to make better decisions that reflect higher values is disconcerting. It could be taken as indication that the proverbial “inmates are running the asylum.”
But faculty elsewhere do see the problem. As a political science professor in Massachusetts queried:
Should we blame students for the party atmosphere on many campuses? That might be tempting, but it ignores the “Club Ed” ambitions of some presidents. Dorms, in many cases, have become full-scale resorts. What is a student to think when seeing, for instance, Texas Tech University’s leisure pool and “lazy river”? . . . [R]ecall how little time students spend on their studies and how much money is spent on recreational facilities. Should I add that coaches are the highest-paid employees of most states? The economic necessity of these expenses may be open; the case is closed regarding their relationship to any intellectual drama.
In a similar vein, in an article analyzing the parallel increase of financial aid and college costs, higher ed policy analyst Kevin Carey,
Damningly, the money hasn’t even been spent on the students who are picking up a larger share of the tab. Instead of hiring more tenured professors to teach them, colleges have brought on board legions of low-paid adjuncts. In 1975 most instructional faculty were tenure-track or full-time. By 2009, that percentage had dropped below 40 percent. At the same time, the ranks of college administrators have grown. And anecdotes of universities’ building elaborate recreational facilities featuring things like lazy rivers (these having replaced climbing walls as emblems of excess) are commonplace, as are money-losing sports programs, aggressive building programs, and other expenditures that belie any sense of financial restraint.
So, it seems that the students and their education are harmed when funds are diverted from bona fide educational expenditures to recreation, sports, and other forms of entertainment. It was likely such concerns that prompted students at University of North Carolina-Greensboro to join faculty in protest of an expensive recreational center.
But beyond students’ articulated “needs,” the lazy river is an apt symbol of the state of higher education today. It is a state where lazy pools are built and libraries crumble, where sports are king and the arts a fall into dangerous desuetude. In Louisiana, these trends have be admirably chronicled by L.S.U. journalism professor Robert Mann in his notable blog and his news commentaries on higher education. In a recent commentary following the latest Louisiana legislative wrangling, Mann pointed to an upcoming state constitutional referendum as an indication that Louisiana state universities may soon be public in name only. Specifically, he warned:
Voters will consider a constitutional amendment to give the state’s universities tuition autonomy. If approved, schools will no longer need a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to charge students more.
Believe me, if the amendment passes, the history of public universities in Louisiana is over. Lawmakers will tell college presidents: “You’ve been begging us for years to give you the authority to set your tuition. So, now you have it. Raise all the revenue you like, just don’t come to us begging for more money.”
It has been suggested that a large part of the recent UREC expansion, lauded by students, but condemned by those in the wider public who have been following the story, is that encouragement of these “student-initiated” fee hikes may be just a way for L.S.U. to continue to raise tuition without sacrificing standing in the college amenities arms race, aimed at increasing enrollments by attracting full-tuition paying students from other states even as state funding dwindles–which could ultimately mean that Louisiana students themselves get shunted aside, as has happened in other states.
In that case Louisiana students could end up being served very poorly by a university administration happy to let them fritter away their funds on marketing frivolities, even as the Louisiana legislature becomes more willing to disinvest in higher education, and the hounds of hell are chomping at the heels of the much-loved TOPS program. But, then as a commentator put it pithily on Twitter: “Those who pick SCHOOLS for POOLS are FOOLS.”