History professor John V. Lombardi, the president of the Louisiana State University System, inevitably takes a long view when asked about the parlous state of research universities in the United States.
“You pick your decade and there will be a whole bunch of books on how things are in crisis,” he observes. “You know: an American university in crisis. You could have an American university in crisis book written every 10 years, and they’ll all say the same thing. You know: ‘we’re coming to a dramatic shift in the way in which universities are operated, and they’ll never be the same again,’ and then 10 years later we are pretty much the same again, chugging along, getting better, changing a little bit, and adjusting to the world that’s around us.”
Lombardi, who has headed the 54,000-student LSU system since 2007,* is coeditor of the annual survey, The Top American Research Universities. (http://mup.asu.edu/research.html). An alumnus of Pomona College in Claremont, California, and of UCLA, he earned his PhD from Columbia University in 1968 and has also served in other leadership administrative positions at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the University of Florida, Johns Hopkins University, and Indiana University.
As he said several times in this extended interview conducted over the summer (before protests at the University of California, Davis put university funding in sharper relief) with Ken Stier for Miller-McCune.com’s "Research Universities on the Edge" series, “The fact that you get beat up and you suffer pretty good, that doesn’t mean you’re broken.” As a prime barometer, he offers the athletic programs of these major institutions (keeping in mind LSU’s BCS Championship-bound football squad): only when those programs are threatened around the country will he panic.
Miller-McCune: Is there a crisis in higher education today, particularly in the research universities?
John V. Lombardi: We are constantly both in a process of crisis and change and growth, and shirking and rearranging themselves, but the process follows relatively well-known systems. That is, we tend to do the same things when confronted with a crisis, and there are changes over time in how we do those things, but they are not as great as we imagine them to be — even though they can be significant.
What we don’t know is whether the current crisis is going to be significant enough to, in some way, break our system, but so far it hasn’t done that. It has caused us a great deal of grief and difficulty and problems but probably hasn’t gotten around to breaking our system. It may yet but it hasn’t done so.
M-M: What would be a sign of that?
JVL: A sign of that would be if you saw established institutions or even mid-range institutions dramatically changing their functions. So, if you find a research institution that gives up research or you find a big university giving up football—we are losing money in football—that would be a really good sign.
Most universities that play Division I-A football, Bowl Championship Series football, most lose money, and they lose a significant amount of money, so they are clearly cross-subsidized by the institutions. So if those are not being curtailed, then you know the institution, while it is suffering and struggling and having difficulties, is not at the breaking point. …
Research Universities On The Edge
• Retaining Excellence in U.S. Research Universities
• States Prove Weak Link in Supporting Research Universities
• Innovation Must Get in Line for Academic Funding
• If LSU Cuts Football, Academia Can Panic
Another sign might be if you found regular four-year comprehensive universities drastically narrowing their range of programs and only doing education and business and psychology, or something like that, instead of trying to have a broader range of programs.
You do find that small private institutions are at risk in these circumstances, there are quite a few that run in the order of a thousand students or less, and they are very vulnerable to these downturns in the economy—because if students don’t show up, they go broke. They don’t have the endowment to carry them [so] you will see some of them go out of business. That probably doesn’t break the system; that just kind of chews up the bottom edge.
M-M: Is there a reordering that goes along with this phrase “breaking the system”?
JVL: Yes, there will be some reordering that goes on. We don’t know how big it’s going to be, but there will be some institutions that imagine they will be able to ride into the level of the elite research universities [that] will find that the resources are not there for them to do that. And some universities that are on the margin between being successful research places and not so successful research places will find it harder to do that because research is an expensive enterprise.
I mean, all research costs a lot of money, so if you are going to be in the research business, you have to generate a surplus someplace else to reinvest in research. If you are UCLA or Michigan or Wisconsin, places like that, you have enough roll going forward to sustain yourself for quite a while as a major research place; but if you are a middle-range institution, like a something-or-other, Eastern-something and you have a little bit of research and you want to get more, it’s going to be hard to find that money. There might be a spread there in the middle in which the top people get richer and the middle people struggle.
M-M: Is that true that all research is generally subsidized?
JVL: All research is subsidized. There is no research that makes money.
M-M: Most comes from the federal government.
JVL: Yes, but you still have to pay money for it. So if you go out and get a grant, for say $100,000, the university probably is having to spend from its own resources $10,000 or $20,000 to support that research activity and to make those faculty members successful and to sustain a space in which they do their work, so the payment for the research never covers the full cost of the research. So if the research grant pays you $100,000, you can you be sure that the research is costing the university $120,000 or more to produce, so the $20,000 has to come from somewhere. It comes from a larger undergraduate population in which you make a surplus, or it comes partly from endowments to pay for professors, or it comes from state grants, typically for buildings and space and equipment and so forth.
M-M: I always thought that these expenses were built into or absorbed by the university’s overhead.
JVL: The overhead doesn’t begin to cover the costs. Usually if you figure the overhead—let’s imagine the overhead is like 50 or 60 percent—for a whole variety of complicated technical reasons, the university will probably overall not recover more than 30 percent. They won’t recover 30 percent because there will be agencies they go through that don’t pay for the direct costs, like the Department of Education, which only pays 8 percent, even though the true overhead is about 40 to 50 percent.
M-M: How severe do you think the decline in federal support might be—the largest source for this aid?
JVL: Well yes, the federal support certainly is large, but in public universities the state support is the critical base on which you build the ability to compete for federal dollars. So, you’ve got to have both pieces. If you don’t have the institutional support, which is as you recall from student tuition and fees, or it comes from state dollars—really it comes from both—then you don’t have enough money to support the acquisition of the research grant. Because you have to get the professor, you have to set him up in a lab, and you have to let him get his program running so he can have a successful competition for the grant. And he may not have a grant the first day out of the box, so you may have to support him for two years before he’s ready to compete successfully for an NIH or NSF grant.
M-M: Well, we all know that states are pretty broke, generally. Just look at California and the squeeze its university system is in.
JVL: That’s one of the great challenges. Many states have had universities who are all trying to be research universities, and whether they could continue their support of competitive research as state dollars decline remains to be seen. Some of it depends on whether they’re able to refocus their work and be more efficient, some of it depends on whether they can maintain their student fees at reasonably high levels so they can generate enough revenue to support the quality associated with research, and so on. That’s the battle that’s taking place now that you’re seeing all over the country, and when you see places like the University of California and what they believe to be terrible straits, well, you can recognize that it’s serious stuff because they’re some of the strongest universities in the country. But they’re probably going to be OK, most of them, because they’re big and because California is big, and while they are in terrible straits they always seem to pick themselves out. So I’m not too worried about California.
M-M: Do you have a sense of just how much of a hit universities could take overall from the federal government?
JVL: I think the federal government probably is going to maintain its investment in research. That’s a high priority for the federal government. Every indication we have is that the federal government so far has a pretty good commitment of maintaining its support for scientific research and medical research so I’m not sure we have to look there first for the challenge. I think the challenge is going to come from the other income streams that support the university on which the research base grows, so it’s more worrisome about how much tuition and fees students can carry. It’s more worrisome about how much state support can be provided to a public institution. It’s worrisome to try to figure out whether universities can find more efficient ways to do things and create some margin.
The amount of margin you can get from efficiency isn’t as big as everybody thinks. It’s not quite so easy to streamline a university, of course; people go to universities for one-on-one instruction, or as close to that as they can get, and also it’s not like producing some kind of Google online with huge economies of scale. There are very few big economies of scale in universities. If you look around there aren't universities much bigger than 40,000-50,000 students, and that’s not because we couldn't be more efficient. It’s because by the time you get that big and you still maintain some reasonable semblance of a class size and all of it works very well, you break off and build another university.
M-M: It sounds like there will be increasing stratification.
JVL: Yes, I think you’ll see that and I think too, one of the things going on obviously is the for-profit expansion of universities and the online stuff that’s all being done out there on the margin. Those places, they don't take much away from the upper half of American universities, but they may take quite a bit away from the lower half, because they are very, very efficient, and they’re very focused and they don’t spend any money on amenities. They don’t spend any money on good times, there’s no fraternities, no sororities, no rec center, no nothin’—they just pump out instruction and credit hours. So, they will be very efficient on the margin for people who want just the instruction and they don’t want any of the other attributes of the American university experience. Many of those people will come from markets that were previously, perhaps, served by small state colleges and to some extent community colleges, although those folks are doing OK right now.
M-M: So it doesn’t sound like you’re all that worried.
JVL: No, I’m worried in the extent that it’s going to be very, very difficult to get through the period we’re in, it will be very difficult for individual institutions in individual circumstances. So if your an institution like ours here in Louisiana, which has very serious budget problems, and a firm commitment to not to raise taxes, this is going to be a difficult transition for the next couple of years, and we’ll lose a lot of strength and a lot of faculty and opportunity, but we probably won’t break. That’s the point, you know, we’ll take a beating, but we’ll come out on the other side and begin to gradually try to rebuild and recover what was lost during the financial downturn, which is what’s going to happen in lots of other places around the country.
M-M: Any major issues at all with the peer review process and actually getting grants?
JVL: Yeah, I think the trouble with the peer review process is that there’s not enough money and so the success rate is quite low. In some places you have success rates on the range of 20 percent of good proposals presented. The challenge of that is, of course, when you’re only having a 20 percent success rate, many of the proposals you turn down are within hundredths of a point of being as good as the ones you accepted. That makes people uncomfortable because you like there to be a difference between the ones that you take and the ones you don’t take. But in this constrained environment where everybody’s trying to do good research and there isn’t enough money, it’s going to be like going to the Olympics and they win by three-hundredths of a second. People say, “What’s the fundamental difference here?” Well, in research it’s harder to define but basically that’s what the winners are winning by, three-hundredths of a second, and the losers are not in the game by that small margin. So they look and they say, “There must have been something wrong with the process that I didn’t get selected.” But it may not be that there’s anything wrong with the process, it may be just that perfection is not possible under these circumstances and you do the best you can recognizing that some of the top ones you don’t pick. It’s almost the luck of the draw.
M-M: Does that process become politicized to the degree that there’s lobbying going on?
JVL: I’m sure there’s some, it’s a human process so perfection is clearly beyond us, but I think in general, as human processes go, it’s pretty good. I think that the biggest political issue is not so much the choice of who gets funded but rather the choice of what gets funded, because Congress has to appropriate money for the NIH, and the NIH has to make the case to Congress that the things they need the money appropriated for are important. And so whatever it is that Congress thinks is important will get money appropriated to it. So if you’re studying botany, for example, that’s not a very hot field, so there’s not a lot of grants for botany; but if you were studying cancer, there’s always money for cancer, because the Legislature appropriates for cancer. And so the politics comes in mostly in determining how much money goes to the NSF and how much money goes to the Department of Energy, and how much money goes to the National Institutes of Health. That’s where the politics occurs. That’s the highest amount of politics.
M-M: How much more commercially funded research is there going on in universities?
JVL: That depends of course on where you mark it from, but I think what we’ve seen over the last generation at least is a gradual shift of some parts of the corporate research activity, especially the basic research activity, towards universities, where the basic research gets done with support of federal funds. Then the commercial guys come in and sort through the basic results, and pick out things that have commercial potential and then license them to be developed into products in their own laboratories. There’s a lot of that going on. Usually what happens to us is that somebody invents something and then you license it out, and it goes to a start-up company or goes to a big corporation like Merck or IBM or somebody, and then they develop it, and the university receives back patents, or revenue, or royalty revenue, or licensing revenue, and a faculty member may take a leave of absence and go work for the company or something like that.
I think it will continue to be a significant element. It’s always been part of the game, but as the world becomes more and more technologically sophisticated and dependent upon scientific discoveries of this kind, I think you’ll see more and more emphasis within the university on doing research and then transferring it into the marketplace. We’ve done this forever, of course, with medical science, with clinical trials and all that stuff. So there’s a very long tradition of that on the medical side, and some on the engineering, a good deal in some of the computer areas.
M-M: What’s the level of concern about companies and their priorities skewing what researchers are interested in?
JVL: That’s always the case. I mean, anybody with money skews the game. Obviously all the interest in producing compounds and discovering things for drugs and medicines of every manageable kind is fueled to a large extent by the pharmaceutical industry. This is the combination of the federal interest in health and the pharmaceutical interest in drugs, it creates a real magnet for faculty to pursue basic science that may well at the molecular or sub-molecular level help us figure out how to have a better pill to solve whatever problem we’ve got. So yes, that surely makes a difference. I think you find people pursuing topics for which there is funding, and whether that funding is from the feds or is from corporations, or from big charities, it’s hard to say “No.”
So when the Ford Foundation is interested in something, there’s a lot of research that goes on in the area that the Ford Foundation is interested in. Like Bill Gates’ foundation is interested in something, well, a lot of education research is going on, and education initiatives, trying to respond to the Gates Foundation. So it’s not just cooperative, it’s philanthropic groups and the government and everyone that put money on what they think is important, and then university faculty take their skill and apply them to try and solve those problems because they can get support to do the work that will allow them to solve those problems.
M-M: What do you make of the leading U.S. universities that have gone overseas?
JVL: Well, they’ve gone overseas for money, obviously. I mean, I think they think there’s revenue there. I think they think there’s an opportunity to acquire high-quality students and perhaps faculty that they can’t get where they are, but most of these initiatives are based on going someplace where somebody else has a lot of money and they hope to make money. And so they’re really revenue-generating activities for the home university. And so you go some place where they don’t have the infrastructure, and you provide the infrastructure and the knowledge and everything, and they pay you a premium. Then, after some period of time, the host country will probably get that infrastructure and knowledge, and they won’t need you any more. But in the interim, you’ll make a lot of money because you’ll be getting paid for what is the sub-cost of your expertise developed at home. So you move that overseas and you teach somebody in some other country how to do high-quality academic stuff. We have a lot of that that went on in Hong Kong and elsewhere, where American universities went over to Hong Kong and helped them set up science universities, what was it, 25 years ago or something like that? And all Americans are gone out of there now; these guys have terrific universities all their own. They’re just doing fine, thank you very much. But in the short term, there was a lot of benefit to doing that.
M-M: Is that a little bit like corporations, in terms of global competitiveness? Is that shortsighted, do you think?
JVL: No, I don’t think it’s shortsighted. You can’t stop people from being smart, so you might as well try to take advantage of it while you can. I think that some universities will figure out how to collaborate long term with some of these international ventures, but the history of these international ventures is they don’t last very long. Everybody starts out very enthusiastic and pats each other on the back, and says, “God, this is terrific!” And after spending around three or four years, the locals say, “We don’t need you anymore.” That was kind of like nationalizing the petroleum industry right? Once they know how to pump oil they don’t want you there, they want to pump the oil themselves. And so they say, “Thank you very much,” and send you home. But at the same time, you create linkages, you create relationships that will pay off down the way; but I think the principle motivation is revenue generation.
How do think about the notion that our current times seem both the best and worst of times for universities, in that you’re having this budgetary squeeze, primarily from the states, at the same time we are in the midst of the “golden age of science”?
We’re always at the best of times and the worst of times for universities, but in the long view that’s normal. There’s always booms and busts in both the cycle of financing and undergraduate educational activity and this life cycle of science activity, which are not exactly the same. They don’t run on exactly the same cycle, so sometimes there’s a boom in the need for science and discovery, but the undergraduate enterprise struggles with funding because it’s locally based. But I think it’s certainly a typical time for universities. …
These are durable places you know. They’ve been one of the longest-running organizational artifacts in Western civilization. Besides the church, it’s the university. And there’s a reason for that. It’s built to stay. It’s built to be stable. It’s built to have multiple sources of revenue and multiple ways of surviving. Society by and large has become more enthusiastic about universities, not less. Nobody’s saying, “Gosh I don’t want my son to get into college.”
*This story originally cited only the enrollment of Louisiana State University, and not the entire system. Back