LSU Shreveport at 40: The Little Engine That Could
By William D. Pederson, Ph.D., Professor & Director of American Studies Program
History teaches that education, the engine of democracy that empowers individuals to rise in society, also drives economic development. It is no coincidence then that in 1862 Abraham Lincoln signed into law two of the most important pieces of legislation ever passed by Congress: the Pacific Railroad Act and the Land Grant College Act.
The former led to the building of the transcontinental railroad that linked a vast young nation and fueled its economic development as a modern industrial giant. The latter transformed American higher education from a prerogative of the privileged into an opportunity for the entire emerging middle class. Through the Land Grant College Act, America's great experiment in self-government fostered universities like Louisiana State University that are the envy of the world. A second-generation of American institutions of higher education, including Louisiana State University in Shreveport, subsequently emerged. With them, a college education was within the reach of millions unable to follow the traditional higher education pathway. Legislative seeds for LSUS were planted in 1967, with visionaries planning a new two-year campus to take root and flourish on a 258- acre former cotton field in Southeast Shreveport.
Despite a variety of obstacles over the last four decades, like the enduring "little engine that could," LSUS has proved its value to the development of the intellectual capital and economic growth of Northwest Louisiana. The story of LSUS is the tale of community persistence over decades. It was not until the middle of the Great Depression that local civic and political leaders concluded that Louisiana's second largest metropolitan area-geographically isolated from LSU in Baton Rouge-needed a public university. When it became a reality in 1967, it was a modest beginning: LSUS opened as a two-year commuter college with about 800 students. Finally on track, the little engine began to build steam, and within five years sought expansion to a degree- granting four-year liberal arts institution. Despite intense opposition from other state institutions fearing loss of their students to the Shreveport university, Shreveport legislators State Sen. Don Williamson and Rep. Alphonse Jackson were lead sponsors for a bill, strongly supported by Gov. Edwin Edwards, community leaders and the Shreveport Times, that elevated LSUS to four-year status. The legislation was enacted in 1972, but not before opponents amended the bill to prohibit dormitories on the campus, a means of restricting growth of LSUS. It would be nearly two decades before the university, with assistance of former State Sen. Foster Campbell, engineered a solution for that prohibition. Since the fall of 1993, apartments built next door to the campus have accommodated more than 450 students.
As the LSUS engine gained momentum, buildings began to rise from the barren cotton field until today more than a dozen modern buildings occupy a campus landscaped with tree-lined drives and walkways, thanks in large part to the beautification efforts of Dr. George Kemp and his family and the generosity of local businesses.
Traditionally the intellectual center of a university is its library collection. In fact, Noel Memorial Library houses 250,000 books and is a select depository for United States government documents. The library, which opened in 1994 to replace the original library opened as part of the original building in 1967, also boasts the 200,000-volume James Smith Noel Collection of rare books.
Library resources are augmented by the Pioneer Heritage Center, established on campus in 1977 by the Junior League of Shreveport-Bossier. The Museum of Life Sciences, constructed in 1990, holds a collection that includes the most complete array of plants from northwestern Louisiana in the world. Since 2002, the International Lincoln Center's collection has showcased America's sixteenth president's legacy abroad. And the American Studies program-the first privately endowed program on campus-has for nearly a quarter century sponsored the South's only independent, and least expensive in the nation, Washington Semester.
The entire region benefits daily from the efforts of former faculty member Dr. Dalton Cloud, who spearheaded the mid-1980s campaign to bring National Public Radio to the area through KDAQ, housed on the LSUS campus. Today, the Red River Radio Network has one of the largest coverage areas in the United States.
LSUS has begun efforts to address global awareness, an issue of growing importance. The campus is a member of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) with French study programs in Belgium, France and Quebec. The director's office of the Association of Third World Studies, the oldest and largest professional organization of academics interested in developing nations, is now housed at LSUS.
The International Lincoln Center, in cooperation with the India Studies Program, has assisted in sending students to conferences in Latin America and India. The College of Business recently offered programs in Germany and Mexico. These international offerings were pioneered by former professor Marilyn Gibson whose trips date back to the 1970s. A consortium of faculty at LSUS and the LSU Health Sciences Center at Shreveport sponsors the nation's first Olympic-affiliated USA Weightlifting Development Center, which is housed at LSUS. To measure the distance that LSUS has traveled since 1967, one needs only to view the 250-page LSUS catalog of undergraduate and graduate programs, or to note that the LSUS Foundation has more than $11 million in assets, a reflection of community support. Finally, the work of its 4,000 students and 200 faculty members is also reflected in the comparative data of state colleges published in the annual, independent Gourman Report that consistently ranks LSUS among the top tier of Louisiana colleges and universities. This accomplishment is evidence that the little engine that could remains on track to fulfilling its mission as the premier university in upstate Louisiana.