Fate of Research Institute Uncertain

LSU Weighs Coastal Studies Decision

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

This time-worn admonition appears to have been ignored by certain administrators at Louisiana State University (LSU), where there’s an effort under way to phase out the venerable 54-year-old Coastal Studies Institute (CSI).

The irony of the timing is notable given that coastal issues are “front and center” in Louisiana following the devastation incurred by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

The internationally-renowned CSI was formed in 1952 as a result of a letter of agreement with the geography programs, Office of Naval Research (ONR), to conduct national and international research in coastal regions.

Since that time, CSI has conducted research in coastal areas on every continent except Antarctica, and has received numerous honors and awards, according to Harry Roberts, former institute director.

Roberts only recently retired from the post of director of CSI and LSU’s Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences (DOCS) after a 12-year stint.

Via its long-time internationally-recognized researchers -- including AAPG members Roberts and James Coleman (both LSU Boyd professors), among others -- and skilled support staff, CSI has gained particular acclaim in the realm of research and understanding of deltas worldwide.

The Road to Ruin

In essence, the seeds for the dismantlement of the organization were inadvertently planted some time back.

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If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

This time-worn admonition appears to have been ignored by certain administrators at Louisiana State University (LSU), where there’s an effort under way to phase out the venerable 54-year-old Coastal Studies Institute (CSI).

The irony of the timing is notable given that coastal issues are “front and center” in Louisiana following the devastation incurred by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

The internationally-renowned CSI was formed in 1952 as a result of a letter of agreement with the geography programs, Office of Naval Research (ONR), to conduct national and international research in coastal regions.

Since that time, CSI has conducted research in coastal areas on every continent except Antarctica, and has received numerous honors and awards, according to Harry Roberts, former institute director.

Roberts only recently retired from the post of director of CSI and LSU’s Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences (DOCS) after a 12-year stint.

Via its long-time internationally-recognized researchers -- including AAPG members Roberts and James Coleman (both LSU Boyd professors), among others -- and skilled support staff, CSI has gained particular acclaim in the realm of research and understanding of deltas worldwide.

The Road to Ruin

In essence, the seeds for the dismantlement of the organization were inadvertently planted some time back.

The group functioned independently on soft money, i.e., grants and contracts, until 1985, when institutional funding from the ONR ceased and then-director Coleman asked the university to pick up the salaries of the staff. Then, a couple of years ago, the dean of the School of the Coast & Environment (SC&E) transferred all CSI faculty under the canopy of the SC&E, where the institute and DOCS were housed.

“We became a sub-unit of DOCS, which took away our independence,” Roberts said. “Even hiring someone now is a big committee decision.”

But the real bombshell hit via a letter in mid-June from Edward Laws, dean of SC&E. He announced the intent to phase out an entire group of research institutes: Coastal Studies, Coastal Ecology, Coastal Fisheries and Wetland Biogeochemistry.

In his letter, Laws noted: “I have become convinced that DOCS will never reach its flagship potential as a research and educational unit until the faculty collaborate more effectively, and I believe that it will be impossible to effect the desired degree of collaboration as long as the research institutes ‘ continue to act as separate administrative units.”

Roberts wryly commented, “Decommissioning all the institutes supposedly would make us all one big happy family under the department.”

It is noteworthy that CSI would be joining the “family” with $15 million in committed grant money still on the CSI books.

“One of the things that has slowed this thing down is CSI was formed by the board of supervisors,” Roberts said. “To dissolve it you need the board’s action, and I don’t think they realized this.”

But that’s not all that has helped somewhat to put the brakes on this still-likely-to-happen academic train wreck.

Wordplay 

Roberts et al decided to harness the power of the pen.

“We began a letter writing campaign to make the chancellor aware of what was going on,” Roberts said. “When word got out to the coastal sciences community and sedimentology, people from all over the world started writing to the chancellor.”

According to Roberts, the collective tone of the letters is “the science community can’t believe you’d take a working and long-term productive unit like Coastal Studies and do away with it in hopes something more productive comes out of the demolition, without having a guarantee you’ll get anything out of it”.

Abby Sallenger, research oceanographer at the U.S. Geological Survey in St. Petersburg, Fla., concurs.

“The history is there,” Sallenger said. “Coastal Studies has done many extremely important fundamental works on the basic understanding of our coasts, and they’re still extremely active with what’s going on.

“How you could justify doing anything to diminish that effort by doing something else seems to be a waste of time and good capability,” Sallenger said. “In reorganizing an organization, there’s a tendency to throw away the book and start from scratch. It’s a terribly destructive way of operating.”

Indeed, there is a pervasive fear among the CSI staff and others that its ability to function as a world class field support unit no doubt will be lost if the proposed reorganization is really severe.

Such an event would dismantle the intricate infrastructure that enabled the institute to make its contributions to coastal science, including geology, physical oceanography, meteorology and remote sensing.

“This has all been because we’re like a SWAT team,” Roberts noted. “We’re a small group but one that works well together with a highly efficient operations mode.”

A Final Question

The jury is still out on the full impact of the letter writing campaign.

The letters clearly were not ignored given that Chancellor Sean O’Keefe tasked Chuck Wilson, vice provost academic affairs, with penning a response to be sent to all who wrote.

Wilson noted in his missive that the chancellor’s office had not received a request to eliminate CSI. He stated “action to eliminate an institute ‘ created by the board of supervisors would require chancellor, president and board of supervisors approval.”

Wilson wrote also that a faculty committee will be assembled by Dean Laws to guide the debate surrounding his intent to restructure the academic and research groups with SC&E.

AAPG member Chacko John, director of the Louisiana Geological Survey, state geologist and LSU professor, succinctly puts the whole flap in perspective:

“Why mess with something that’s working fine?”

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