March 19, 2015 09:45 AM

Louisiana higher education leaders listen on Wednesday night as LSU students pose questions about threatened budget cuts.

Louisiana’s higher education leaders are finally fighting — and aggressively so — to stop the $608 million in proposed state budget cuts that would devastate their institutions.

At a forum on Wednesday night, sponsored by several LSU student groups at the Manship School’s Journalism Building, LSU President F. King Alexander and University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley were surprisingly blunt.

Joined by Jan Moller of the Louisiana Budget Project, the three panelists not only described the doomsday scenarios that await higher education if Gov. Bobby Jindal and legislators don’t raise taxes; they also prodded students to the kind of activism and protests that the state’s college campuses have rarely seen.

“Be annoying,” Alexander told the students. “Sometimes you don’t have to be so polite. This is the time you need to fight for your fellow students.”

Woodley urged students to remind legislators that “a tuition hike is a tax hike.” Like Alexander, she also encouraged students to storm the state Capitol. “They need to see your faces,” she said. “They need to hear from you. You need to let your voice be heard.”

Alexander went beyond vaguely urging student activism to giving students specific ideas. “I’d set up a report card and have a big press conference and I’d grade [legislators],” he said. “Grade them on their votes.”

Alexander said students must hold accountable those lawmakers who are unwilling to generate the revenue to save higher education. “They expect you to be graded,” he said. “Grade ‘em back. They may not like an F, but they earned it.”

Both leaders painted a dire picture of what their institutions would look like if deep cuts materialize. “There will be institutions that lose accreditation,” Woodley said, adding that such budget cuts would send some of her system’s schools into a “death spiral.”

Alexander worried that students will soon be registering for fall classes that might not be available. LSU officials have said they could be forced to cancel more than 2,000 courses. “We’re talking about survival,” he said, adding, “We may not be opening in August.”

Asked by one student what kind of governor they are looking for in this year’s election year, Woodley was surprisingly direct. “I want leadership and courage,” she said. “The times calls for a different approach.”

Alexander said he wants a governor who recognizes that college students “are the greatest asset we have,” which he defined as “educated human capital.”

“You guys are not expenditures,” Alexander added, “you are investments.”

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