Higher Ed Superboard Faces Tough Future

Gov. Bobby Jindal has opened up some old wounds with his suggestion that one superboard be created to replace the five boards that now manage higher education in Louisiana. It is an issue that surfaces from time to time, but rarely goes anywhere.

“Our state needs a highly coordinated system with a laser-like focus on outcomes,” Jindal told a room full of university board members this week.

As you would expect, reception to the idea was cool from most in the audience who would lose their board seats if the one-board recommendation survives.

Jindal got a much-warmer reception when he proposed giving higher education boards more autonomy to raise tuition and enjoy more freedom to manage their own affairs.

Speaker of the House Jim Tucker, R-Algiers, had legislation at last year’s session that would have merged the existing higher education boards. The bill would have abolished the Board of Regents and the four other boards and replaced them with the Louisiana University System Board of Trustees.

The other boards manage the LSU, Southern, University of Louisiana and Community and Technical College systems.

Tucker’s bill never got to first base. It was sent to the House Committee on Education and died there.

Two at one time

The state had just two boards prior to the constitution that took effect on Jan. 1, 1975. The LSU Board of Supervisors governed a half-dozen campuses. The state Board of Education had authority over nine colleges and universities, trade and special schools and elementary and secondary education.

Talk of creating one superboard in 1965 drew quick and unanimous opposition from the LSU board and the other education board.

The issue surfaced again in 1970, when the Goals for Louisiana Committee recommended having two different boards. One would have authority over higher education. The other would manage elementary and secondary education.

Members of the state Board of Education unanimously opposed the suggestion.

Delegates to the constitutional convention in 1973 brought up the oneboard idea once again. The American Press discussed the issue in an April 18, 1974, editorial.

“Most people have agreed in the past that higher education in Louisiana has no real leadership, and no coordinating machinery,” the editorial said. “In an effort to erect such coordinating machinery, the delegates at the constitutional convention provided for an overall board of regents as a planning and coordinating body.”

Delegates to the convention couldn’t agree on whether the one-board idea was the way to go. They decided to let the voters make the choice when they cast ballots on whether they approved the new constitution.

In addition to a yes or no vote on the new constitution on April 20, 1974, voters were given two alternatives on how to structure higher education.

Plan A provided for a board to govern elementary and secondary education, a second board as a coordinating body for higher education, a third to supervise and manage state colleges and universities, a fourth to manage the LSU System and a fifth to supervise the Southern University System.

The five boards would be made up of 77 individuals, and 69 of them would be appointed by the governor. Eight of the 11 members of the elementary and secondary board would be elected.

Plan B reduced the number of boards to two. One would govern elementary and secondary education and the other would manage higher education. The LSU board would have been retained, but the Legislature would have had the power to phase it out.

Voters chose Plan A, giving it 324,429 votes to 198,524 for Plan B. The voter turnout was only 37 percent.

Political observers said LSU supporters influenced the outcome.

In Calcasieu Parish, voters favored Plan B, 9,250 votes to 9,142 votes for Plan A.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education became one of the five boards. The other four are the state Board of Regents, the LSU Board of Supervisors, the Southern University Board of Supervisors and the Board of Supervisors for the University of Louisiana System.

The Board of Supervisors for Community and Technical Colleges wasn’t created until 1999. It has 17 members, 15 of them appointed by the governor and two elected by the community and technical colleges.

Another attempt

Former Gov. Mike Foster took another shot at creating one board for higher education in 1996. He ran into opposition from the Legislative Black Caucus and the Louisiana AFL-CIO, and the plan didn’t go far.

Jindal’s call for merging Southern University at New Orleans and the University of New Orleans is also stirring the pot. He can expect more of the same with his one-board proposal.

Creation of a single higher education board requires a two-thirds vote of both houses of the Legislature and majority voter approval at a statewide election.

We can expect to hear some of the same arguments that have been waged against one board in the past. LSU supporters will insist it would dilute the flagship status of their university. Spokesmen for the other schools will contend LSU would siphon off some of their appropriations that are already in short supply.

The issue still deserves some serious debate, whatever the outcome.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, where this piece originally appeared, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or [email protected].

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