The man who was responsible for laying the groundwork for LSU to become one of the better publicly funded universities in the country died last week in Baton Rouge at the age of 83.
The man was Jim Wharton, who served as chancellor at LSU from 1981-1988. It was Wharton who in 1984 steered LSU away from an open-admissions policy to one in which prospective students — beginning in 1988 — must have taken a somewhat rigorous schedule in high school in order gain admission to the state’s flagship university. It was a controversial move at the time, but it was a move Wharton felt was necessary for LSU to become what LSU could become, if only the politicians would get out of the way and allow the professionals — like Wharton —to establish and implement policy at the university. Obviously Wharton recognized that Louisiana’s success was at least partly dependent upon LSU’s success. That’s still true today.
If memory serves me correctly, the new admission standards required all incoming freshmen to have taken four years of English, four maths, four histories, four sciences, two years of a foreign language and computer science to be eligible to enroll at LSU. It was in stark contrast to what LSU had previously required of incoming freshman, which amounted to nothing more than a high school diploma.
The new admission standards by no means were Wharton’s only contributions to the university. He eliminated non-performing programs, directed big money toward research and set up a fund to provide stipends to instructors. It also was under his watch that the Tiger Athletic Foundation was established and though it was in its infancy when Wharton stepped down as chancellor, TAF now collects millions of dollars in contributions each year from LSU alumni and supporters. Those dollars — all private donations — paid for all of those fine facilities on the LSU campus that the athletic programs utilize year round.
It is important to remember that much of Wharton’s handiwork during his rather brief tenure as LSU’s chancellor evolved while state government struggled in the midst of one of the worst economic recessions in Louisiana in the 20th century. The collapse of the oil industry literally bankrupted the state, and that meant higher education was expected to make do with whatever the Legislature appropriated. Still, during Wharton’s tenure tuition at LSU remained very affordable. It was in the neighborhood of $750 a semester when I enrolled at LSU in the fall of ‘88.
Much of what Wharton did and accomplished during his stint as chancellor set the stage for the growth and success the university experienced during Mark Emmert’s tenure as chancellor beginning in 1999. It was under Emmert — thanks to the support of Gov. Mike Foster — that LSU rose to become one of the top 50 public universities in the United States. It was LSU’s heyday.
Several years ago Wharton was asked if anyone at LSU — namely then-LSU President F. King Alexander — ever called him to pick his brain or ask for his opinion about actions the university had taken or might take in the future. He said, “No. Never.”
In hindsight, it makes perfect sense that Alexander nor anyone else who was in a decision-making position at LSU rejected seeking Wharton’s input. After all, it was Alexander who thumbed his nose at LSU’s somewhat stringent admission’s policy in order to enroll students under a watered-down set of standards known as “holistic” admissions. According to Alexander at the time, LSU needed to “diversify” its student body.
Under “holistic” admissions, a prospective student’s grade point average and ACT score do not determine whether the student should be allowed to enroll. Instead, a student’s “body of work” in high school is taken into consideration including whether the prospective student was raised in an impoverished atmosphere.
To surmise, Alexander dumbed down LSU’s standards in order to diversify the student body.
Apparently Alexander’s new “holistic” approach worked. Today, LSU enrolls more minorities than it ever has in the history of the Ole War Skule. Perhaps that would help explain why the LSU Board of Supervisors passed on hiring the widely regarded Jim Henderson to serve as the university’s president and instead chose William Tate, a black man whose academic career is defined by his espousal of critical race theory including its outrageous claim that mathematics itself is racist.
I wonder what Jim Wharton would think?
Sam Hanna Jr. can be reached by phone at 318-805-8158 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.