Wednesday, 09 February 2011 10:32
Louisiana Higher Education Reform Needs Systemic Change
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John Maginnis--Louisiana PoliticsIn laying out his legislative agenda for higher education, Gov. Bobby Jindal's recent address to a conference of university administrators and board members was received with mixed emotions, as evidenced by infrequent and tepid applause.

   They liked hearing his pledge to limit college budget cuts to only 10 percent and to grant schools more flexibility to raise tuition and fees. But they also gathered from his remarks that, if he has his way, most of their seats would be vacant at a future conference a year or two from now.

   The governor restated his commitment to change the constitution to get rid of the current five management boards in favor of a single entity over all universities and community colleges.

   His earlier call for a study of merging the University of New Orleans and Southern University at New Orleans already has kicked off a heated debate, but the notion of a single board goes much further and could lead to other mergers and realignments of institutions statewide.

   Yet getting either done would be a tough sell at the State Capitol this spring. Opposition by the Legislative Black Caucus and the state Democratic Party has turned the New Orleans merger into both a racial and partisan issue. Working out the policy and political issues of a single board of higher education requires more deep thinking than can be handled this year by legislative minds already taxed by reapportionment, the budget and re-election.

    Though both issues will stir debate in this session, the shame of it would be for them to fall by the wayside and for the status quo to trundle on. The best hope may be a fall-back plan to get something done in New Orleans while keeping alive the ideal of realigning higher education.

   If the Legislature won't merge UNO and SUNO, it should at least take the two campuses out of their respective systems, LSU and Southern, and put them under the University of Louisiana System. Remove the racial overtones and immediate practical problems of a forced merger and the focus turns to what's best for students and most efficient for higher education.

   Instead of a shotgun merger, putting the two schools under one system would facilitate their holistic and gradual growing together through shared faculty, facilities and courses, even administrators.

   While the emotional issue of merger would be largely diffused, system separation would still elicit howls of protest from--guess where--two small office buildings in Baton Rouge that house the staffs of the two systems and where their boards meet.

   Pinch Southern and LSU jumps, because while the latter system is bigger and richer and more powerful, its special status politically depends on equal status for the other. So they are in this together.

   LSU system officials badly want to maintain the foothold in New Orleans, for its political and alumni support, but that feeling is not reciprocal on the UNO campus or, for that matter, in the community as a whole.

   There also is fear of the slippery slope, for, without UNO, the question would arise of why shouldn't the branch campuses at Shreveport, Alexandria and Eunice follow suit. Indeed, why not?

   Without the disparate satellites, the LSU Board of Supervisors would still have plenty to say grace over: the flagship campus, the law and medical schools, the agricultural center, the biomedical research center and ten public hospitals, including the giant to be built in New Orleans.

   SUNO is more vital to the Southern University system. Without it, beyond the law school and ag center on the main campus, the lone outpost would be the two-year Shreveport-Bossier branch. That would be unacceptable to President Ronald Mason, who points out that Southern is the only historically black university system in the nation.

   He calls that a good thing. Rather, that Louisiana is doing anything in higher education that no other state is doing is the best argument for stopping it right now.

   Letting UNO and SUNO go be with schools their own size, instead of forcing their merger, might seem a small step, even a cop-out to the single-board-now purists. But the change would be a huge leap over the political barrier formed by the two systems that is blocking the unifying movement in higher education.

by John Maginnis of LaPolitics.com

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