Fallout Begins From Jindal’s SUNO-UNO Merger Proposal

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s surprising request yesterday for the Board of Regents, the authority which governs higher education in the state, to begin a study of the feasibility of merging Southern University at New Orleans with the University of New Orleans is rapidly becoming the biggest news in the Bayou State this week.

As one might imagine, the first proposed consolidation of public colleges in memory (if ever) is generating a wide spectrum of reactions.

Rep. Austin Badon (D-New Orleans), who chairs the House Education Committee and serves on the SUNO staff, was unsurprisingly negative about the idea.

“I feel like I was returning a punt and got blind-sided,” said Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, who chairs the House Education Committee. “They (the LSU and Southern systems) need to take care of their children,” not turn a newly merged campus over to a third board, Badon said. “We talked three weeks ago and there was not a word, not a peep, about this.”

Badon, who is on the staff of SUNO, said the proposal has a good chance of passing. If it does, he said, “you could see the death of an historically black college or university. They want to close SUNO.”

Instead, Badon said, the state should be looking at ways to improve graduation rates at SUNO and UNO. “This absolutely has legs.

“He is a Republican governor and the Republicans control the House,” Badon said. “Let the battle begin.”

Badon also told the Associated Press that when Jindal met with the Legislative Black Caucus a few weeks ago he didn’t tip his hand on the SUNO matter.

“He never brought it up. It’s just totally a blind-sided hit. It’s something that we don’t need to be doing. It probably won’t save a lot of money.”

Of course, given what is likely to be an extreme negative reaction to the SUNO-UNO merger concept by members of the LBC and the black community in Orleans Parish it’s not a shock that Jindal didn’t tip his hand to them.

More supportive was House Speaker Jim Tucker (R-Algiers), who is outspoken about the need to significantly cut spending everywhere in state government and has also suggested consolidation of public colleges often.

“I think it is a good idea, a double-barrel good idea,” said Tucker, a UNO graduate. “I think it is a heckuva idea. This is the type of strategy we have to look at” in a budget crunch, Tucker said.

Reaction to the proposal doesn’t just center on the merger and effective shutdown of SUNO, though. The other half of Jindal’s proposal involves moving the resulting institution after UNO and SUNO are merged out of the LSU system and into that of the University of Louisiana. Jindal suggested that move because UL campuses are typically more integrated with the state’s community colleges, as the governor suggested UNO and Delgado Community College will be when the merger is completed. That doesn’t meet with universal approval, as LSU system president John Lombardi indicated in an e-mail response:

“The LSU System is proud of the accomplishments of the University of New Orleans in its 50-year history. It has emerged as a major urban public research university over those years. This success testifies to the commitment of the New Orleans region, the faculty, staff, students, and alumni of the institution, and the state and donors during this period of growth and development.

“The LSU System remains firmly engaged in the support of UNO’s mission, and will work closely with UNO, its many constituencies, and the Board of Regents on any proposals to strengthen and enhance the effectiveness of this fine institution.”

Of course, commentary from the general public is all over the place. The pro-UNO crowd has taken Sen. Ben Never’s suggestion that the SUNO-UNO merger be coupled with statewide consolidation efforts and carried that to suggestions that LSU and Southern be merged in Baton Rouge, while the UNO-SUNO merger is being held up by more left-wing folks as another piece of evidence that Jindal is out to destroy public education in Louisiana so as to keep the state’s population stupid and poor. Others note that the idea of eliminating SUNO as an independent institution has floated around for decades, and Jindal is merely taking credit for it (it should be noted that no governor has ever taken the step of actively seeking such a consolidation). But at least half of the public sentiment expressed so far seems to be supportive of the idea. In fact, the Baton Rouge Business Report is running a poll on the idea, and early returns showed it’s popular by an 84-11 count.

A merger of SUNO and UNO will require two-thirds majorities in both houses of the state legislature after the Regents sign off on it. That would constitute an uphill climb, one which in normal fiscal circumstances would face long odds of success. But with a $1.6 billion deficit to make up this year, things are politically possible which normally would not be – and the merger may have a fighting chance of approval.

But as we’re seeing in the first 24 hours after the news broke of the proposal, it won’t happen without a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth.

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