Mergers & Education test Governor Bobby Jindal's Mettle

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February 9, 2011

By Eileen McGuire-Mahony

Baton Rouge, LOUISIANA: Tackling unprecedented budget deficits, states have shown remarkable creativity. They have also met resistance from one interest group or another in nearly every specific proposal to trim costs. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a Republican finishing his first term and hoping to win a second this fall, is grappling with that very issue after his proposal to combine two state colleges. Faced with the stark reality of Katrina's lingering effects and with a $1.6 billion fiscal gap, state schools are struggling to fill classrooms, Governor Jindal asked the State Board of Regents to assess to merits of merging two higher education institutions in the state's best known city.

The University of New Orleans and the Southern University at New Orleans may be a stone's throw apart, but Jindal's suggestion that combining the two would be a sensible budgetary measure has highlighted their differences. The former is a large research university while the latter is one of Louisiana's four publicly funded Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs. In addition to folding the smaller SUNO into the University of New Orleans, Jindal has also suggested greater collaboration with Delgado Community College, a school working overtime to meet the needs of its enrollees. According to the Governor's statement, such a plan would cut costs for all three institutions while also allowing each to focus more on academics.[1] Both schools have rock bottom graduation rates after six years - 21% for UNO and only 5% for SUNO - numbers that Jindal say mean its time to look seriously at stark changes.

He has an uphill battle. Historically Black schools have strong champions who have argued that SUNO serves a unique community role, one that would be lost were it to become part of UNO. Austin Badon, a Democratic member of the State House and an employee of the Southern University, described the Governor's plan and its impact on black Louisianans as, “an attack on our very well-being.”[2] A 2006 proposal to merge the two schools fell apart when the Board of Regents came to the same conclusion and recommended keeping the school separate in light of their distinct missions. Jindal must overcome that argument and win a super majority in both the House and the Senate if his plan is to pass.


Merging schools is a tough sell in any circumstances

Even in economically austere times, shuttering public colleges and universities is unusual. Alumni push back against the idea and administrators at targeted schools are quick to list the reasons their institutions ought to be preserved intact. Similar proposals in Mississippi and Georgia, both of which would have merged an HBCU into a larger school, were quietly dropped in recent months. In announcing that he had asked the Regents to look into merging UNO and SUNO, Jindal indicated his awareness of the territory he was getting into, promising to, “ensure that any savings from streamlining these schools to improve student outcomes will be retained by higher education” and reassuring voters his office would "wait until we receive the completed study before formulating or recommending any legislative proposals for the upcoming session."[3]

Nor is the weight of the potential merger lost on Louisiana's Regents, who accepted Jindal's request for a study, saying they would “fully vet it to make sure the needs of African Americans students are addressed.” Jindal's request is technically an addendum to a study the Regents are already conducting to look for opportunities to merge administrative functions, share resources, and generally get a bigger bang for the buck in higher education across the state. Should UNO and SUNO be identified as a good match, legislative approval and a fierce lobbying effort will still await. At a preliminary hearing with the Board of Regents on Tuesday, the consultant hired for the review echoed the lackluster graduation statistics before a room packed with concerned students and lawmakers.[4] Legislative advocates for both schools also testified, charging that years of neglect and funding have hampered UNO and SUNO.

Students resist plan

The two schools aren't keen in merging either. UNO has published a multiyear strategic plan, a plan already reworked to accommodate Louisiana's financial reality.[5] SUNO is currently promoting its 'Today, Tomorrow, and Beyond' program to fund new construction on the campus.[6] Students and supporters of SUNO, which lost nearly 90% of its students after Katrina, held a rally for their school, where speakers touted its role in supporting non-traditional students and made clear their willingness to continue fighting any merger.[7]

They have at least one expert in their corner; higher education consultant Dr. James E. Samels, who has written a book on the subject of merging colleges and universities, notes that successful mergers tend to be based on common academic missions, with largely financial mergers have less optimistic records. State legislators point to the state system's sacred tiger - Louisiana State University - and indicate they'd like to see comprehensive reform to all Louisiana's higher education components rather than "bullying" the smaller schools.

Jindal also has his backers, such as Council for a Better Louisiana president Barry Erwin, who called the plan "long overdue."[8] LSU System President John Lombardi and University of Louisiana System President Randy Moffett both offered carefully worded responses, expressing a willingness to support whatever recommendation the Board of Regents makes. In the event of a merger, the new school would likely come under the University of Louisiana system as the flagship school, a possible counterweight to the massive LSU system.

In taking on a battle that has fared poorly in other Southern states, and in doing so when he faces re-election, Bobby Jindal has cut himself a big portion. The Board of Regents is due to deliver its report and make an official recommendation to the Governor by March 1, 2011. Should any merger bill hit the legislature, it be in rough waters from the beginning. Rep. Badon, who has been so strongly against the idea, chairs the House Education Committee, which is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. If the bill gets to the floor, it will still be a tough fight to win. The Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus, which immediately came out against the plan, may lack the membership to block the merger on its own, but it could partner with other lawmakers, likely Democrats, to come up with the one-third vote needed to block passage.