An academic reader sends this Chronicle of Higher Education story about a new $85 million recreation complex that recently opened at Louisiana State University — even as the university’s budget has been gutted. The piece is behind a paywall, but below are excerpts to give you the gist of the story. The central metaphor is a “lazy river” at the rec complex; writer Jack Stripling contends that what the lazy river represents applies to all higher education in the US, not just at LSU. Read on:

A generation ago, there would have been little public argument that a lazy river qualified as a luxury amenity — a proverbial line in the sand that even the most fun-loving of institutions dared not cross. But the gradual moving of that line represents a broader shift in the balance of power in public higher education. The leaders of cash-strapped institutions feel obliged to service the whims and desires of tuition-paying students, whose satisfaction has become ever more crucial as state support wanes.

In the fall of 2010, a fact-finding team from LSU took a road trip to see the fancy, updated rec centers at other regional universities. They decided that LSU needed one too. More:

The fall of 2010 proved to be one of the early chapters in what would be a long story of public disinvestment from Louisiana’s higher-education system.

There was some cognitive dissonance, Ms. Borel recalls, between scouting out new amenities and chasing down lawmakers with camera crews to lecture them about cutting essential programs — something she also did that year. But the recreation project was a long-term vision, way off in the distance, and the budget crisis was seen by students as temporary.

“We knew it was bad,” Ms. Borel said, “but we also thought it would end.”

It didn’t.

The state legislature eviscerated LSU. So how could the school afford an $85 million rec center? By passing fees on to students — who told researchers that they wanted a new rec center. Even though student fees are paying for the center, its existence is a monument to the state’s lousy priorities — and that’s why the facility has drawn a lot of criticism. More:

Aware of this sentiment, LSU officials face the politically delicate task of defending an amenity that they seem to prefer not discussing. They have taken to calling the river a “leisure river” or simply “the river,” correcting anyone who calls it “lazy.”

“There is nothing lazy about the pursuit of health and wellness,” Ms. [Laurie] Braden [director of LSU’s recreation department] says. “This is not about a river. This is about health and well-being.”

From there, the case for the river grows ever more elaborate. The river, she says, might bridge divisions across diverse groups of students. So, too, it might offer the healing powers of recreation, she posits. Ms. Braden, unpacking that point, cites research suggesting that a denial of play may have been a contributing factor in Charles J. Whitman’s shooting spree, in 1966, from a perch on the clock tower at the University of Texas at Austin.

“He had a very scripted life, where there was no play involved,” says Ms. Braden, drawing on the work of Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist and founder of the National Institute for Play.

So the lazy river is celebrating diversity and keeping potential assassins at bay. Got it. I presume she told the reporter all that with a straight face.

The story emphasizes that taxpayer dollars were not used to build the rec facility. But it’s still symbolic in the mind of the public of a university that is always crying for more state money (which, let me be clear, I believe it deserves) but finds a way to construct a Vegas-style leisure park. Plus, as a parent who anticipates that his oldest kid will be starting LSU next fall, I’ve got to pick up these added fees. I wouldn’t mind doing that if it was going to professor’s salaries, or to a renovated library.

Ah yes, the library. More:

Robert T. Mann Jr., a mass-communication professor at LSU, is ambivalent about all of this. Along with about 350 other faculty and staff members, he pays for a membership to the recreation center and uses it regularly for exercise. But he can’t get past the fact that LSU is recruiting new students with a lazy river while hoping that they don’t look at the library.

“You wouldn’t bring a high-school student here,” said Mr. Mann, seated in a fabric-torn booth near the library’s entrance. “But you damn sure would take them to the rec center.”

The library is a passion project for Mr. Mann, an old political hand who was previously communications director for Louisiana’s former governor Kathleen B. Blanco, a Democrat, and a press secretary to three U.S. senators.

This past spring, Mr. Mann led a tour of lawmakers through the bowels of the building, hoping to provoke in them a sense of urgency, if not of shame.

“Some of these wads of gum are older than you and me,” Mr. Mann says, descending a stairwell. Pointing to some students, he adds, “This furniture is older than their parents.”

This is a state funding problem, Mr. Mann says. It should not fall to students, as it did with the recreation center, to vote in favor of taxing themselves anew for a library, he says. At the same time, the university’s administration seemed far more proactive in building support for a recreation facility than in finding money for what Mr. Mann sees as the center of the university’s academic mission.

“I haven’t heard of any university-sponsored trips to go see nice libraries over the summer,” Mr. Mann says.

Take a look at Bob Mann’s blog, which is full of photos of the decay of the university’s library. You can’t understand the symbolism of the lazy river unless you also understand the symbolism of the decrepit, falling-down library.

I know what you’re thinking — that the athletics programs are getting away with something. No, they’re not: at LSU, the athletics programs pay for themselves. No programs at LSU are losing money to pay for the new rec center. So what’s the problem?

The reader who sent me the story is an academic. He explains:

At least in the abstract, shouldn’t we be untroubled by a project that the students themselves both desired and were willing to pay for?  I mean, if it ends up being budget neutral, what’s the big deal?  Of course, that’s not how these things work.  The school will still be on the hook at least for maintenance and repair costs that will, over time, outpace the funds received from fees.  Fees must them increase or LSU is out of pocket.

The author of the article contrasts this gleaming temple to leisure (er, “fitness”) with the shabby condition of LSU library, which ought to be the beating heart of any institution, at least of its core Humanities and Social Sciences divisions.  That the school would spend time and energy investing in a massive project that is little more than a recruitment tool and yet another playpen for spoiled, sheltered children while neglecting the facilities that further the educational mission of the university is sad commentary on the state of higher education and its priorities.

Here at my institution in the Midwest, we have spent massive amounts of money overhauling parts of our Library…which involved removing the books entirely in order to make way for “collaborative learning spaces” and the ubiquitous over-priced coffee nooks.  More places to hang out and play around and facebook.  Our library stacks are overstuffed, books are falling onto the floor between shelves, the off-site storage is filled to capacity, and decades of pressure on the regents for a new library building have come to naught.  They are not sexy projects, no philanthropist cares to put his/her name on (yawn) a library (those reservoirs of outdated codex technology no one really uses), and they are simply not useful recruitment tools.  Don’t get me wrong, our operating budget is still fully funded by the provost but what that budget actually pays for…well, that’s another rant entirely.  But hey, at least the football team wins.  Mostly.

Here’s what I think happened at LSU: the university’s leadership realized that not having a fancy rec center would hurt student recruitment efforts. But they had enough sense to realize that the state wouldn’t fund its construction. So they convinced students to pay for it. I concede that LSU carried out this project in the most justifiable way possible. What’s wrong here is that the university is not leading the charge to convince its students to pay higher fees to renovate the library, and to do other projects that directly affect education.

And what’s wrong here is that the public — taxpayers, as well as parents of LSU students, and prospective LSU students — doesn’t seem to mind. As the Chronicle‘s story indicates, university administrators have ceased to be leaders, and instead have confused meeting the desires of student-consumers with responsible stewardship.

But nobody really cares, do they? Give the public what it wants, not what it should want, if it desires to have its sons and daughters well-educated.

Hey students, professors, and university administration, what are you seeing on your campus?