In last week’s post, I shared my belief that public universities have a good story to tell when it comes to the vital contributions they bring to the communities in which they’re situated. I’m very pleased to be able to share the story of one such university from one of its professors, Richmond Eustis. —JW
The Heberts and Richards snare the uninitiated first. They’re not at all pronounced, as you might expect. That’s before you even attempt the Guillots, the Naquins and Bergerons, the Fontenots and Trahans on the class roster. By the time one comes to a Guidry or a Landry, it’s a massive relief.
Getting through one’s first encounter with the roll at Nicholls State University is a sort of rite of passage for new instructors not from the bayou region. My university is very, very regional, and the surnames are just one indicator of it. There are others, touching on culture and geography, on student demographics, and on austerity and defunding.
As Anne Kim notes in a Washington Monthly story from 2020, there’s no official definition of what a regional public university is, but they are the four-year schools that occupy the rung between two-year schools and the R-1 flagship state universities. They tend to place greater emphasis on teaching than research. And although they rarely figure in national coverage of university campus culture, they grant approximately 40 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in the country. They are in many respects the most common college experience for U.S. undergraduates. And like many of their better-funded counterparts, they are under economic and cultural pressure.
I began thinking about what it might look like for regional public universities to embrace their position in higher education in response to a May 19 tweet by Oakland University professor Jeffrey Insko, who wondered, “What if a regional public university just took seriously ‘regional’ and ‘public’ instead of trying to be some two-bit imitation of some marketer’s or consulting firm’s generic idea of a university?”
Taking that role seriously is something my university does pretty well, but its embrace of that role is as at least as much a function of austerity as it is of culture and institutional choice.
Nicholls is in Thibodaux, La., about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans. In spring 2022, it counted 5,531 undergraduate and graduate students. It admits about 94 percent of applicants. The student population is about 65 percent female and about 35 percent nonwhite. The age skews slightly older. There is a large population of former armed forces members. Fewer than 3 percent of Nicholls students come from out of state and about 1 percent are international. Nicholls draws about half of its students from Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes, between New Orleans, the Atchafalaya Basin and the encroaching Gulf of Mexico.
The university “vision statement” sets out Nicholls’s intention “to be the intellectual, economic and cultural heart of the Bayou Region.” The largest enrollments are in science and technology, followed by business and liberal arts. Nicholls graduates 80 percent of the teachers and nurses in its region. The B.A. program in culinary arts sends students to the Bocuse Institute in Lyon and to restaurants across the country. One alumna, Meg Bickford, is the first woman head chef at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. In keeping with the demands of local industry, there’s a program in geomatics, another in petroleum engineering. There is extensive research in coastal ecology and restoration. There’s the Center for Bayou Studies, which studies and seeks to preserve the ecology and culture of a rapidly disappearing region.
Nicholls cost about $8,700 a year in 2021–22—about middle of the pack for the University of Louisiana system. That cost is up from about $4,700 in 2011–12. The reason is a precipitous drop in state funding for higher education.
Between 2007–08 and 2016, Louisiana defunded higher education by 44 percent. These were the years of the Bobby Jindal administration. The state used to provide approximately 70 percent of the funding for higher education. Of the $56 million in total revenues and expenditures in the 21–22 academic year, the state provided $11.9 million— about 21 percent. Further, Nicholls pays most of that back to the state in the form of mandated costs. As recently as 2018, Nicholls was paying more back to the state in mandated costs than it was receiving in state funding. Since 2017, the funding has stopped hemorrhaging and has stabilized somewhat, but the enduring regime in Louisiana higher education is austerity. The limits of the possible have a dollar sign.
At Nicholls that austerity means several things. First: that huge spike in tuition putting financial pressure on students and graduates. Although the state used to bear the cost of public higher education, now individual students do. It means fewer professors, fewer courses of study and a physical plant that needs a lot of attention. It means a standard 4/4 teaching load, a faculty that went a decade without a raise and for whom sabbaticals are the subject of dreams or rueful joking rather than a reality or expectation for those who otherwise would qualify.
The possible at Nicholls is limited by funding. And by creative responses to the lack of it. Doing more with less is not a sustainable solution. Compounded by COVID and the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, which left many of our students unhoused, unable to access reliable internet, unable to get to class. The faculty did its best to accommodate these extraordinary demands on ingenuity and energy.
In short, Nicholls cannot afford to do the things that universities with more resources are able to do— and that may include a regime of management discipline the university pays for. Nicholls, in many respects, is cast onto its own resources and ingenuity. The degree to which business-side, management-consultant types can be warded off from any enterprise in the United States just now is a much larger question than this post can address. However, it does raise the question of what happens when an entity is so subject to austerity, so short of funds, that it might not be worth trying to make it into a sleek-as-a-seal generic university. What happens when it’s cast back on its own limited resources?
At a place like Nicholls it looks like a fierce attachment to its region. Our budget limits us in many respects to the regional. The culture, in effect, is relentlessly local—in part driven by students and some faculty, but also because it is limited in many respects to the local and regional. This means a few things—our experts are experts in where we are. We have to be. The school dives into and celebrates local culture, because that what external pressures demand. The pirogue races and crawfish days and coastal work are accessible. Culture comes from necessity as much as it does from creativity and pedagogical experimentation and support. Our calendar builds in fall holidays for the inevitable storms that close the school in the season.
I don’t intend here to send a plucky message about what is possible under austerity regimes. But austerity can force universities into approaches and policies that fit them, rather than some consultant’s idea of a generic university anywhere. The idea is that other regional universities, with perhaps more resources, could look to the same thing.
I’d like to think Nicholls would do these things, intensify them, even, if it had all the funding it could want. Rather than trying to change its identity into something other than a regional private university, what would that look like? The question has an anodyne answer that nevertheless seems to annoy and prompt eye-rolling from state politicians: funding. Funding on the level of decades ago—making the university truly public.
We could drop tuition to rates of two decades ago or more and make public regionals accessible financially and academically. The university could hire enough professors to reduce the standard teaching load from 4/4. Students benefit from smaller classes, and the interaction between students and professors improves. More resources can retain students and help them finish their degree.
It wouldn’t turn Nicholls—or any public regional university—into a Nationally Competitive University. That’s not the purpose of such universities. However, it would be an enormous investment in the region and in a university that considers itself the hub of the region.
A “public” and “regional” mission ties a university to the people of its region not only in geographic or ecological accident, but also in terms of culture and language. That’s a landscape savvy schools can choose to inhabit rather than just becoming, to repurpose Walker Percy, “anyone anywhere.”
Richmond Eustis is associate professor of English, Spanish and comparative literature at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La. His teaching and research focus most often on American literature as world literature, with a special emphasis on maps, space and postcolonial wilderness. He also is a longtime field instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School, teaching backpacking, packrafting and whitewater kayaking, mostly in Alaska.