By Dayne Sherman
Louisiana Higher Ed and Walker Percy
One career politician has traveled the Bayou State delivering a lame lecture to civic groups titled “Why Louisiana Ain’t Mississippi.” The purpose of the talk is to speak well of Louisiana and secure a few votes for the next election, which is every politician’s primary goal.
Perhaps a better question, one not asked by Louisiana leaders, is “Why Mississippi Ain’t Louisiana”?
Let me explain. In March, the popular chancellor of the University of Mississippi was fired. Dr. Dan Jones had just returned to work after cancer treatments. By most accounts, Ole Miss has been on an upward trajectory throughout the past two decades, and by any reasonable measure the school is a national success story.
The statewide community of Ole Miss students, faculty, alumni, and fans took Dr. Dan Jones’ sacking seriously. At one of several events, 2,500 people protested in Oxford. The political class became scared, and the popular chancellor was offered a two-year extension to his contract, which he rejected.
Again, the whole fight was over the firing of a fine and beloved Mississippi higher education leader. Louisiana, on the other hand, has seen $750 million in higher education cuts since 2008 and may face as much as $800 million in cuts next fiscal year. This would mean the catastrophic failure of the Louisiana postsecondary system.
Are students, faculty, alumni, and fans worried? Not hardly. The legislative session started on April 13, and the budget cuts will begin on July 1. This crisis is like a hungry wolf standing in the front yard while parents are letting their kids play unattended on the porch.
Louisiana college students rallied at the Capitol on April 15. About 150 people showed up, but only a handful from LSU in Baton Rouge, the state’s nearby flagship, cared to participate.
While students testified at the House Appropriations Committee, at least one legislator slept on the dais, said UNO’s Driftwood staff [see comments]. Even those who are asleep can tell the difference between 150 and 2,500. Louisiana legislators may not be virtuous, but they have sense enough to get out of the way of a bad storm. Cutting higher education is not a bad storm. There are no real political storms on the horizon.
Indeed, what has happened to Louisiana and why isn’t it more like Mississippi? This apathy doesn’t bode well for the fall. Legislators apparently view protesting students and higher education as insignificant to their priorities and prospects. After all, it was Rep. John Schroder (R-Covington) who said, “Our hands are tied.” He couldn’t care less about higher education.
Louisiana novelist Walker Percy’s last book The Thanatos Syndrome leans toward science fiction. The book’s protagonist Dr. Tom More realizes the locals in “Feliciana” Parish are conducting a Nazi-like experiment on the population by putting heavy sodium ions in the water. The populace becomes lethargic but happy, great at mathematics, and sexually overheated, among other odd characteristics.
Hmm. I wish a team of chemists and sociologists could explain why Louisiana has fallen into such a spell of lethargy. Is there something in the water?
How would Dr. Percy, the great diagnostician of the modern malaise, analyze the Louisiana patient? Perhaps he would dispense with the game and call the coroner for a death certificate. Maybe he would throw in the towel and move back to his childhood home of Greenville, Mississippi. It’s quite possible he would take out a bottle of Early Times and drink himself silly.
All of Louisiana should be asking hard questions. There may be no answers from politicians, but pushing the boulder up the mountain and watching it fall back on us like Sisyphus in the Greek myth is answer enough.
Dayne Sherman is the author of the novels Zion and Welcome to the Fallen Paradise. Please support Talk About the South by purchasing one of these $2.99 ebooks. Signed first editions available from the author. He receives e-mail at email@example.com. And he does not speak for any of his employers.
Dayne Sherman, Writer & Speaker
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