Regents Consultant Punts On UNO-SUNO Recommendation, Political Fur Flies

At a long and rather chaotic Board of Regents meeting yesterday, higher education consultant Dennis Jones delivered what was billed as an advance notice on a recommendation whether Louisiana should merge its two public campuses in New Orleans.

Jones, who runs the Colorado-based National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and has worked with the Regents before, had plenty to say. But what he wouldn’t say is whether the  merger should take place.

The Advocate picks up the story

“This is a city that’s not being well served by the status quo,” Jones said. “This is not just a SUNO-UNO issue.”

Jones said UNO and SUNO “serve wildly different student bodies.” UNO is an urban research university. SUNO is a historically black college serving nontraditional students.

Very few SUNO students could meet UNO’s admission standards, Jones said.

“We will focus on students, not on institutions,” he said.

As the Times-Picayune reports, Jones essentially said both schools currently stink.

Jones noted that SUNO’s six-year graduation rate is 8 percent, while 21 percent of freshmen who enter UNO earn a baccalaureate degree within six years. “These are very low rates by any standards,” Jones said. “It’s not that one is (much) better than the other. They’re all low.”

Jones’ final recommendation to the Regents is still forthcoming, but it’s worth asking how big his check is going to be – so far he isn’t telling us anything we don’t already know. And because he returned without any real insight, the Regents meeting turned into a political free-for-all.

One star of the circus was former Southern Board of Supervisors Chairman Johnny Anderson, a veteran of the Blanco administration which conducted a 2006 review of a UNO-SUNO merger and opted not to pursue it.

“Don’t fool us and say you’re trying to merge institutions,” Anderson said. “You’re trying to close one and make another stronger.”

A fair point, certainly, but it’s a decent wager that the majority of Louisiana’s taxpayers would be perfectly fine with the idea of closing a university which spends $13,000 per student per year and can’t graduate one in ten of them.

Anderson also flopped down the race card, howling that the Regents only has one black board member at present and that Gov. Jindal has been busy appointing a bunch of white guys to the board. He was joined in that sentiment by state Rep. Patricia Smith of Baton Rouge, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, who referred to the 2006 Regents study in the Blanco administration which opposed a merger.

“You were right to oppose a merger, and I encourage you to stay consistent,” Smith said.

Smith also made reference to Jindal replacing minority regents board members with white men in recent weeks.

“You might say it’s a new day, and I can see that’s evident it is a new day by the faces on this board,” Smith said.

Another SUNO supporter who took to huffing and puffing was state Rep. Austin Badon. The New Orleans Democrat is on SUNO’s payroll, so it’s no surprise he’d be speaking with his heart rather than his head. But Badon’s statement made that clear.

“These two schools are being bullied,” said state Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, who works at SUNO. “It’s a shell game — taking two schools and moving them somewhere else.”

Badon said SUNO is still working largely in mice-infested trailers and without a library since Hurricane Katrina and has not been given the proper opportunities to improve quickly.

Badon didn’t say where UNO and SUNO are moving. He also didn’t say what happened to the $96 million in FEMA funds SUNO still sits on; the Times-Picayune reported last week that money has gone unspent while the mice have celebrated their new government housing.

Badon didn’t bring up that subject, but board member Joe Wiley of Baton Rouge sure did. Wiley asked that in Jones’ final report some accounting of where the $96 million is going be made. And fellow board member Robert Bruno of Covington wondered why it is that two universities next door to each other have so little cooperation.

“It always amazed me that you had these two universities that were right next to each other but they didn’t talk to each other,” Bruno said. “Why do we have two libraries? Why do we have two cafeterias?

“If we had done that five years ago, we may not be having that conversation today.”

Perhaps the headliner in yesterday’s cavalcade, however, was state sen. J.P. Morrell of New Orleans – who suggested that the reason we’re talking about a SUNO-UNO merger is that few people in Orleans Parish voted for Jindal, and why aren’t we talking about merging schools all over the state?

“We have over a dozen sacred cows roaming the state of Louisiana in the form of four-year universities,” said Morrell, whose Senate district includes both schools. “For the governor to say that by offering up the two sickliest cows in the herd for slaughter that he’s actually changing anything, that’s laughable.”

The response nobody gave to Morrell but probably should have: Patience, grasshopper. Jindal knows well that a recommendation to kill or merge four or five of the state’s 14 four-year institutions all at one time will only build a coalition to save all of the targets and nothing will get done. That Morrell admits his district contains the “two sickliest cows in the herd” serves as a testament to the correctness of Jindal’s action in opening with SUNO and UNO.

But Morrell then launched into another argument which will be made until faces are blue.

“They’ve been this way because we’re starving them,” Morrell said of UNO and SUNO and ongoing state budget cuts to colleges.

He didn’t explain how SUNO’s $40 million budget for 3,100 students while $96 million in FEMA funds goes unspent constitutes starvation. Perhaps Morrell was referring to UNO. That school’s administrators and supporters might not be crazy about SUNO being merged with them, but they do like the idea of no longer being part of the LSU system.

“UNO will never be the priority it deserves to be within the LSU System,” UNO Foundation Board Chairman Tom Kitchen said. “UNO does not have an effective voice.”

In short, there is little common ground on the UNO-SUNO issue – at least not in terms of the people speaking up at the Regents meeting yesterday. One senses the majority of the Board may back a merger, owing to the fact that Jindal’s appointments predominate and he wouldn’t have brought the concept of a merger forward unless he thought he had support for it.

But it’s clear that SUNO’s backers won’t go down without a fight – a nasty, divisive and stupid fight which will color everything in Louisiana politics in this election year.

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