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“Victories and Challenges” President Authement ‘s Interview With The Times of Acadiana

"Victories and Challenges" President Authement ‘s Interview With The Times of Acadiana

Victories & Challenges
President Ray Authement discusses the state of the University of Louisiana.

By Don Allen
Staff Writer

As president of one of the state’s largest institutions of higher learning, Ray Authement is seemingly responsible for everything. Much of that perception is his own fault, the result of a unfailing desire that his beloved university be as successful as possible. Like other academicians of the office, Authement gets more than his fair share of blame when things go bad and less credit than he deserves when times are good. And these days, at the University of Louisiana, times are mostly good.

Actually, they’ve never been better.

If UL were considered a private business, it would rank fifth among Acadiana’s top 100. The school’s total economic impact to the area is $650 million to $700 million each year and almost $130 million comes from direct spending by students. Operating at a total budget of $211 million, the university has 12,800 employees and more than 16,500 students working and learning on nearly 1,300 acres.

The University Research Park, the Center for Ecology and Environmental Technology and the New Iberia Research Center have given the school an international reputation in the the scientific community. The school’s computer science and biology programs are among the nation’s elite.

Even the school’s athletic programs, admittedly underfunded when compared to its peers, seems destined to succeed.

It wasn’t always so.

A Rough Start
In 1973, the school was still called the University of Southwestern Louisiana but in the hallowed halls of the NCAA, its name was mud. The growing pains of a roundball program climbing the ladder of Division One success at a too-fast pace had landed the program in basketball purgatory. By the time the NCAA infractions committee was done, the Cajun basketball program was denied the privilege of scheduling for two years and placed on indefinite probation while the entire athletic department was saddled with four years of probation. The school became a reluctant poster-child for terms like "death penalty" and "lack of institutional control" as the head coach, his staff and the athletic director were replaced.

Not even the president survived. Any doubts that the buck doesn’t come to a screeching halt on the second floor of Martin Hall were erased with terrible finality when a tired and beaten Clyde Rougeau stepped down.

In 1974, Authement was named president. The school had an operating budget of about $16 million and the student population was right at 6,500.

"Clyde Rougeau had picked me from the faculty to come up here and work with him," recalls Authement. "He let me do just about everything from lobbying the legislature to handling some very difficult problems. So I have a great deal of respect for him and what he was able to do. He just got tired of battling the athletic thing, and it was a tough battle. I can remember going all over the state and spending three days visiting every board member and trying to get a raise for (basketball coach) Beryl Shipley. But Clyde took such a beating over the black athletes, we all took a beating, and he just got tired."

During the 1960s, Rougeau had finally given in to head coach Shipley’s request to sign black athletes, a move that was considered verboten in the Deep South at the time. Marvin Winkler, Elvin Ivory and Leslie Scott were among the first African-American hoop stars to wear the USL uniform, and it wasn’t too many years later than every other Louisiana school had followed suit. But being first on the pathfinder block offered a mixed bag of results. While many observers believe the early inclusion of black athletes at the school had a significant impact on racial relations within the community, the NCAA penalties cast a dark shadow over the school’s athletic future.

The scandal was primarily responsible for seating Authement in the president’s chair. Three decades of academic excellence later, not even his most ardent detractors should argue the results.

New Horizons
"In 1974, we had Acadiana going for us," Authement says. "The oil pact was just beginning to come home and there were resources available in Lafayette there weren’t available in other parts of the state. We knew then we had to change from agriculture and teacher education to something that would be more attractive to students and, believe it or not, bring more jobs to Louisiana. So we made the effort to become a research institution. When the oil bust came and things went south in a hurry, our resources were limited to the state. The state had limited resources, people were leaving Lafayette and it was, last one out, turn off the lights. We were really scratching for dollars, so we devised a (salary) scheme and went to a flat rate that saved several hundred thousand dollars at the time. Actually, we still have that program in place, and salaries now are competing with other schools in our peer group and have even given LSU (something to consider) where competitive salaries are concerned.

"I think the fact we’ve become a research institution with a significant impact not only locally but internationally is probably our greatest accomplishment. We had the first master’s program in computer science in the United States and … we made a conscious decision to concentrate on that program and make it an academic flagship for the university."

So far, it’s full steam ahead. The computer science program is single-handedly responsible for LITE, Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise, a $20 million, 70,000 square-feet facility scheduled to open next February. Some people even say the July 16 fiber vote never would have taken place had the university not brought the people of Lafayette, many of whom are graduates, into the technological age.

"The second program we brought up to excellence was biology," says Authement, "now rated the best in the state and one of the top programs in the country. What has it brought? The National Wetlands Research Center … and all of the work with primates (New Iberia Research Center). We’ve concentrated on a handful of programs, one at a time, and brought them to a level where they were very competitive. Now we’re seeing the results and patents go out of here almost every month.

"In fact, there’s one patent in particular that involves nano-particles, and if it’s granted, we won’t have to raise money. We’ll just earn it."

In the meantime, the key word remains donation, something the administration couldn’t always rely on in the formative years.

"I had some innovative people on board at the time, like this one engineer who’d worked for Milacron, Inc., which manufactured metalwork equipment. He came up with the idea to go to Cincinnati and have them put on consignment some equipment that didn’t cost us anything but would be kept here and we could show it off for them. It created some excitement, and if you remember, there were all kinds of machine shops around that manufactured components for the oil industry. We even got contracts to manufacture artillery shells for the Army and actually did a heck of a lot of stuff around the state.

"We got into helping private business. We’d do the shells here in order to teach the people that would do the final product, and that company was in Shreveport. And after about 13 months, they did all the work themselves. Then right after that, Alfred Lamson (independent oil and gas producer) agreed to raise all that money for us, and you know the story. I asked him to raise $600,000, and he said that was too hard, he’d raise $10 million instead. And he did, from the major companies he’d done business with, and that was a major turning point."

Lamson has passed on, as have other major friends of the university like Herbert Heymann and Bella Chappuis. But in their stead, other younger guns have stepped forward.

"If you look at what we did more recently with Bill Fenstermaker, Clay Allen and Matt Stuller, we asked them to bring our endowment to at least $75 million. And in total gifted assets, we’re now at about $120 million. They took it from maybe $20 million to close to $100 million, and they’re all young guys and dedicated."

That’s the good news, here’s the bad. UL’s athletic budget is as anemic as its academic coffers are healthy.

The Sports Challenge
The UL athletic budget is $7.2 million, while the University of Texas — the Cajuns’ 2005 football opener — operates with more than $60 million annually. Even Western Kentucky, a Sun Belt rival that doesn’t play 1-A football, budgets almost twice as much as UL. Only UL-Monroe spends less than the Cajuns among Sun Belt Conference teams. But to compare the Cajuns’ financial commitment to schools from other states is probably as unfair as Authement believes the Louisiana system to be.

"You know the state limits the amount of money we can take from student fees and state-allocated dollars to put into athletics," he says. "As a matter of fact, I just got the numbers for next year and the total amount we can move from fees and state dollars to athletics is $2.8 million — and that’s up $80,000 from the previous year. Because of increases in tuition and room and board, that won’t even cover the cost of the scholarships.

" As I see it, it’s all going to depend on the people of Acadiana, because there’s an arms race to keep up with the Joneses. Florida International just passed a fee that will raise $9 million in athletic income and Western Kentucky imposes an $80 fee per semester that will help improve their baseball field. We can’t do this because of the mandate by the Board of Regents and the state of Louisiana, and we have to break through that. We have to get them to understand that if our students are willing to pay the fee, they should be able to vote and assess themselves, if they wish. That would increase our athletic budget one or two million dollars right there."

But if millions of dollars can be raised so adroitly for academics — and no one buys a ticket to watch a biology class — how is it that athletic fundraising is so difficult?

"There’s a state program, a settlement with the federal government on disputed properties on the coastline, called the 8G Fund. For every $600,000 that you raise academically, the state will match with $400,000. For every $60,000, the state kicks in $40,000. I’ve made many a visit to raise money for athletics, but donors always come back to this program because they can keep their name in perpetuity and that gift will always be there in their name. At this time, we have more than 210 professorships and perhaps 24 million-dollar chairs that are funded through this program.

"There is no fund like this for athletics. There you say, give me $10,000 for athletics, and in all probability, we’ll spend the entire sum immediately. The problem is in athletics, you’re having to raise this every year. Raise it, spend it and then do it again next year. With the 8G program, you raise it, put it in the bank and live off some pretty nice dividends."

Most athletic boosters probably don’t know that and many don’t care. They only wonder why their university athletic program is always near the bottom of the heap when it comes to dollars spent. Authement hints that may change soon.

"You know, I’ve been criticized by a lot of people for not paying enough attention to athletics or giving them enough money. As we’ve discussed before, that’s not my problem, it’s the state not allowing us certain liberties. No, I work very hard on academics and we’ve built a gorgeous new museum because of the generosity of Paul and Lulu Hilliard. I love athletics, but we’re here for academics. I’ve always put academics first and athletics second. But now that we’ve made so many moves toward excellence in academics, we can concentrate on athletics."

But never at the expense of academics. Much has changed in the three decades since Ray Authement first settled into the chair in the president’s office, but not his priorities. Construction on campus continues at an all-time high, including a new parklng garage and an early childhood center in the Research Park, while a new computer science building is in the bidding stage. Although the jury’s still out on a new addition to the Wetlands Research Center, the indoor practice facility is a go and the opening of the $12 million, 155-room Hilton Garden Inn Hotel across from the Cajundome next month should pad university coffers by more than $100,000 annually. In addition to the reputation of the computer science and biology programs, UL is still the only university in the South to offer a doctorate in cognitive science.

The President’s Words

On the increasing pressure to win

"How do you finance facilities and scholarships and salaries that will allow you to compete with the other guys? When you’re talking about salaries of $1.2 million or $2 million for coaches and facilities that are costing you $80 million in bonded indebtedness, you have to win."

On football coach Rickey Bustle’s fourth

season, after three straight losing campaigns

"I think he’ll at least have a winning record this season. He’s definitely a popular guy around the community, but he’s going to realize that if he doesn’t win and doesn’t get the support of the community, he won’t be able to continue to support his coaches and student-athletes."

On former recruit Berry Jordan’s allegations of wrongdoing against basketball coach Robert Lee

"NCAA has not informed me of an investigation, and I’ve been through many, so I know the procedures. We asked the (NCAA representative) three separate times if this was an investigation, and he said no. We even asked after the first newspaper story and he still said no."

On Berry Jordan’s credibility

"I think you’ve given a young man a forum he doesn’t deserve, a forum that the NCAA requested he not engage in. I just look at his record, and somebody should have looked at what happened at Arkansas and some of the other areas before they take his word for other allegations."

On the Lafayette media

"I took exception to some of the things they said, strong exception. They found the word ‘investigation’ on some documents that I freely made available to them and then questioned my integrity. That doesn’t happen often, and that’s not something I can live with."

On a second straight season
of declining basketball attendance

"There were some situations that caused people to question Jessie Evans’ commitment, academically and otherwise. People just stopped buying season tickets. Then, of course, the mess with (Glynn) Cyprien."

On calling it quits

"It’s getting close (laughs). But I’m not going to leave this institution in tough budget times. I’m going to make sure that my successor, when he comes in, doesn’t have to worry about the next payment on the dormitories or the next faculty payroll. When I go, we’ll be in good shape."

Cyprien and Other Stuff

Times: How bad was the fallout from the Glynn Cyprien résumé mess?

Authement: It was harmful in that it set the basketball program back a bit, but I think ending up with Robert Lee as coach was a positive outcome of the whole episode. But, yeah, it hurt our pride, and in sports circles, it’s certainly a black eye. But it did a heck of a lot for our reputation academically because I got a lot of phone calls saying we handled it quickly and we handled it right. There was a great deal of admiration for the way the university responded. I think (Director of Athletics) Nelson (Schexnayder) should have checked this out, no question about it. You know, Nelson’s on some NCAA committees and so on, and he does some things well and some things, he needs to do much better.

Times: Is de-emphasizing sports a viable answer to financial woes?

Authement: I don’t think any school in the South has been able to do that. The president of Nicholls State, whom I was very close to, questioned me about football way back when, and my strong advice to him was, don’t start a football program, you’ll regret it because it’s just so expensive. You think we’re having problems? They’re having real problems.

Times: After 31 years: harder or easier?

Authement: It’s actually much easier now. I know most of the solutions before the problem even comes, and I’ve seen most of the problems that will come up in education.

Thomas Carlyle, the 19th century writer and journalist, once said that the true university of these days is a collection of books. It’s a thought Authement evidently took to heart. 6

Don Allen is a staff writer with The Times. E-mail him at don.allen@timesofacadiana.com. Read the article online at Web site www.timesofacadiana.com.