Governor hopefuls talk tenure, student retention and more on higher education

By: - April 7, 2023 6:00 am

Gubernatorial hopefuls Hunter Lundy, Richard Nelson, Shawn Wilson, John Schroder and Stephen Waguespack detail their higher education views (Photo collage by Greg LaRose / Louisiana Illuminator)

Stephen Waguespack thinks it’s time for the woke era of higher education to come to an end. 

Waguespack, a Republican candidate for governor, is not the only candidate to express such a view. 

His GOP competitor Jeff Landry has not been shy to call out perceived wokeness on college campuses, at times expressing concern that conservative voices are being silenced. 

Hunter Lundy, an independent conservative candidate, has likewise raised concerns about “ungodly indoctrination” in schools. 

Democratic candidate Shawn Wilson condemned such claims, likening the term “woke” to a dog whistle used to speak negatively about minorities on the sly. 

“The stifling of this enlightenment gives me concern because you’re now controlling and limiting the ability to understand history in its context,” Wilson said. “If you don’t study it, you’re bound to repeat it.” 

While pontificating about wokeness has come to be expected in campaigns, it’s far from the only higher education topic that will come up ahead of Louisiana’s fall gubernatorial election. 

Here’s how the candidates fall on the issues. 

Landry and state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, did not respond to multiple interview requests for this article.

What do you think is the role of a public university? 

“Universities ought to provide some vision for our workforce and our economy as a part of not only the curriculum but the academic excellence that they attract ought to be cutting edge,” said Wilson, the recently retired state transportation secretary. “Clearly universities are designed to contribute to a local economy because they attract new residents. They attract businesses to take advantage of their research potential, and you can’t discount the cultural influence that they play as well in terms of bringing art, entertainment, athletics.” 

“The role of a public university should be to equip the young people of our state, first, to take on the issues of the world, the issues of life,” Lundy said “To educate them, train them, equip them, and get them ready for the profession that they’re called to be.” 

Rep. Richard Nelson, R-Mandeville, defined the role of higher education differently. 

“I think it’s to educate the population and also give a path for people to provide for their families, to provide a trained workforce for the businesses that are in the area,” Nelson said. “Unfortunately…we create the trained workforce, [and] I think it mostly goes out of state.” 

Treasurer John Schroder and Waguespack offered more general responses to the question. 

Louisiana’s higher education systems and universities will play a critical role in keeping Louisiana’s best and brightest in state,Schroder said.

“I think all of our institutions of higher learning are there to help turn our young adults into productive workers and citizens of this state,” said Waguespack, former CEO and president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. 

How do you feel about tenure for higher education faculty? 

Nelson said he believes granting tenure is a widely accepted practice in higher education, and the process should be free of political influence 

I think that that’s just kind of a standard practice, and I think [faculty] should be able to speak their mind. I don’t always agree with them, but they should be able to say what they want.” 

Wilson called tenure essential for retaining qualified professors over the long haul 

”When you tell an academic, ‘I expect you to come and do research,’ when you’re looking at long term research, it might be six to eight to 10 years before the research is fully fleshed out to become something practical. And so without tenure, you run the risk of losing talent and making investments in other communities and other states as opposed to growing what you have here at the university systems in Louisiana.” 

The tenure-granting process needs fine-tuning, according Waguespack, in order to ensure universities are using it effectively 

“I understand that there’s a role to ensure you can attract top faculty around the country. I understand the concept behind it,” he said. “But the way it’s applied sometimes can hold back some of the proper analysis that’s needed for any employee. And so I think it’s how universities apply tenure… I would like to see every university be very strategic in how they grant it and apply it and ensure it’s given us a way to protect bold and high performing faculty as compared to protecting those that maybe need to be repurposed or retrained.” 

Lundy would like to see the tenure process evaluated but wouldn’t say whether he supported or opposed its existence.    

“Until I see all the statistics, until I see what the agendas are, then I’ll have an answer,” Lundy said. 

Schroder declined to answer this question


What qualifications will you look for in your higher education appointees? 

Schroder said higher education leaders in his administration would need to capable of curtailing the state’s declining enrollments. More students will ultimately lead to lower tuition, he said

We have a declining student population, and today technology is changing the way students learn,” he said. “My appointments of higher education board members will always be about what is in the best interest of students and campuses.”

Waguespack wants university system board members to bring their expertise to the table. 

“You also want the people that have an understanding and the goals of the institution and the needs of the students in that institution,” he said. “So the qualifications for a board of a flagship university may be different and would be different for those that would go on the board of the community college system.” 

Wilson said higher ed leaders should have “a national vision and a national or international role.” 

“That appreciation of what academics is today and what it’s becoming,” he said “You want a commissioner and/or leaders of systems that will see what the future looks like and take the steps today to be positioned to be competitive in the future. Clearly, you want people who have a level of academic qualification and competence, as well as meaningful experience.” 

State-level academic leaders should have sound training as well as character, according to Lundy. 

“A God-fearing person, a person that understands that in order to be a leader you have to be a servant, he said. “So when you take that position, you understand you’re a servant of the state of Louisiana. You’re a servant of higher education, and you’re a servant of young people who are making a way to a life after they get their education.” 

Nelson will look specifically for academic leaders backgrounds in science and technology research. 

“I think that that is really the path that I would look for to bring the jobs of the future, ” he said. 

What should be done to improve the quality of higher education in Louisiana? 

Waguespack wants a primary focus on student needs 

“If you look at high performing states in the South… it’s quite acceptable for students to go straight to a two-year [college] after [high school] and either use those skills to go to the workforce, or use that education they get and then transfer to a four-year institution… 

“I think we need to do a much better job of identifying those kids and showing them the value of starting at a two-year program to either build a career or their continuing education paths.” 

Schroder wants Louisiana colleges and universities to establish business incubators on campus in order to spark innovation. Students could receive grants to support feasible business ideas if they locate in state, he said. 

Lundy opposes lowering standards to bolster enrollment, and he said partnerships between technical colleges and private industry should be emphasized. 

“​​We should not be lowering our standards to accommodate numbers. We should keep our standards high,” Lundy said, “and we should assure that there’s an equal opportunity for everybody. But our goal should be excellence…” 

Wilson believes Louisiana has academically sound institutions as well as some “cutting edge” program. 

“I think sustainable funding is the most important thing that we can do to really build the quality of our universities… There are programs at every institution that are unique to those institutions, and that offers value.”

Nelson said Louisiana could build a healthier ecosystem for higher education through providing state money to attract “top-rate, world-class faculty.”

“If you’re able to build those advanced lab facilities and things like that, that will attract them and allow them to do top research that is seen all around the world, and will attract grad students who have been working in those kinds of areas. … It’s spending money the right way.” 

Should Louisiana’s colleges and governing boards be restructured or reorganized? 

Nelson said there are ways that the state could eliminate bureaucracy in higher education governance 

“Some of that runs into the political realities of these things that have been here for a really long time,” he said. “I think anywhere where you have people that aren’t creating the final product, like people who are doing research, people who are teaching kids, those are creating a final product. When you have these multiple levels of bureaucracy that aren’t really doing anything for the people, I think that’s where you can look to cut out some of the fat.” 

Wilson was a student member on the predecessor of the University of Louisiana System Board of Directors before state schools were shuffled between the LSU and UL systems. 

“Having been a member and having seen some restructuring and creation of a system’s realignment, I don’t know that I am prepared today to tell you that yes, we need to restructure our education,” he said. “I think we have elements of organization that are working effectively, and I think it’s incumbent upon us to give it that opportunity to perform and make tweaks accordingly.” 

State leaders should be open to more efficient approaches in higher education, Waguespack said, adding that oversight should stop short of micromanagement. 

“I’m always open to figuring out what is that best-in-class model, but I don’t go into this with a preconceived notion,” he said. “I’d want to sit down with local leaders, figure out the roles of each institution, what their goals are. And then at that point, once you know what the strategic plans for each institution is, then you figure out what’s the best governing model to help them get there.” 

Lundy and Schroder declined to answer this question.


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Piper Hutchinson
Piper Hutchinson

Piper Hutchinson is a reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator. She has covered the Legislature and state government extensively for the LSU Manship News Service and The Reveille, where she was named editor in chief for summer 2022.