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Louisiana Speaker of the House pulls the plug on a higher education merger

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May 19, 2011

Jim Tucker says he sees no path to the 70 votes he needs for combining two of the state's universities.

by Eileen McGuire-Mahony

Baton Rouge, LOUISIANA: HB 537, introduced earlier this year with strong support from Governor Bobby Jindal, has been withdrawn from consideration.[1] Its prime backer, Republican Speaker of the House Jim Tucker says the votes simply weren't there. The bill's major opponent, the Legislative Black Caucus, lobbied nonstop and quickly praised the bill's demise.

Had it passed, HB 537 would have merged two of Louisiana's poorest performing higher education institutions. The State University at New Orleans (SUNO) and the University of New Orleans (UNO) are both relatively young schools, sitting across the street from one another in the state's cultural capitol. Both have suffered from falling enrollment numbers and some of the lowest graduation rates in American higher education; 21% for UNO and a mere 8% for SUNO.

SUNO is, however, one of Louisiana's Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and its supporters argued that its cultural role and position within New Orlean's black community were greater considerations than the potential budget savings and its troubled academic record. UNO, a research university and the larger of the two schools, likely would have played the dominant roll in any merger. While it is an integrated campus today, it was, historically, a white school. In the end, the Legislative Black Caucus was able to rally students, faculty, and community members to crush the bill.

Tucker had some luck when, on May 9th, the House Appropriation Committee passed the bill 17-4 and sent it to the floor of the full House.[2] The bill was scheduled to be debated by the entire chamber seven days later, on the 16th. Instead, Tucker first postponed debate and then pulled the bill.[3].

In its place, Tucker introduced SB 183 to move UNO from the Louisiana State University System, the top tier system, to the University of Louisiana System, where he hopes tier 2 status may actually help UNO get onto steadier ground and relieve the school of endlessly competing with the LSU flagship at Baton Rouge. The LBC, he says, has already agreed to back such a proposal. Too, the Senate Education Committee unanimously passed the bill.[4] Originally, the merged SUNO-UNO had been set to go under the University of Louisiana system as the UL flagship, giving that system some counterweight to LSU.

Governor Jindal has a re-election campaign this fall and his standoff with the LBC over merging struggling schools is not the only battle going on in the state. At both the Congressional and the legislative level, redistricting has become a blood letting, in which majority Republicans stand accused of heavy handed protectionism for their incumbents while Democrats and the LBC fend off accusations that their push for more majority-minority black seats is a partisan move. Louisiana's redistricting is before the U.S. Department of Justice for pre-clearance, while the legislature remains in session until June 23, 2011.

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