Regents Writing New Chapter In Louisiana History

The state Board of Regents has hired a new commissioner of higher education, a process that has been criticized for the secrecy involved. And this isn’t the first time the job has been tainted by controversy or political interference.

Jim Purcell, who had the same job in Arkansas, got a unanimous vote from the regents. He plans to take office before the Legislature convenes April 25 in regular session.

The Advocate of Baton Rouge in a Friday editorial accused the Board of Regents of not being “candid, open, transparent or all-inclusive in the methods it used to select the latest commissioner of higher education.”

Names of the other candidates weren’t made public, the newspaper said.

“We wish Purcell well. But if the public doesn’t know which candidates were considered along with him, how can it have confidence that the best candidate was selected?” the editors asked.

The regents argued that names of the others weren’t released because they never officially applied for the job. Private interviews were conducted at area airports.

Time to move on

The deed is done, however, so we can only hope the new commissioner is successful and able to avoid the controversies that have plagued his position in the past. And that takes us back to 1975 when the Board of Regents was created by the state’s new constitution.

Former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards, the father of that constitution, wasn’t happy when five higher education boards were created instead of the one he favored.

Edwards said by acting as the superboard the regents might be able to make the new system work. However, if it didn’t, Edwards said a constitutional amendment might have to be drawn up to abolish the five-board system.

Former Gov. Buddy Roemer tried to switch to one board in 1988, but the move was unsuccessful. Gov. Bobby Jindal is pushing such a plan today. And an effort by Speaker of the House Jim Tucker, R-Algiers, to do the same thing at last year’s session never made it.

William Arceneaux, who had been serving as director of the Coordinating Council for Higher Education, became the first higher education commissioner. He served from 1975 to 1987 and was paid $78,479 annually.

Purcell, the new commissioner, will receive a $275,000 pay package. However, that is quite a comedown from the $425,000 pay package enjoyed by Sally Clausen, who resigned as higher education commissioner last June under a cloud of controversy.

Clausen served as commissioner on two occasions. She followed Arceneaux, but only during 1988-89 and was paid the same salary. She is the sister of Tom Clausen, a former state superintendent of education.

Edith Kirkpatrick, a member of the Board of Regents at the time, opposed Clausen’s appointment. Kirkpatrick said the selection was “politically inspired” and unfair to Gov.-elect Roemer, according to an Associated Press report.

Clausen had been deputy commissioner of administration during Edwards’ third term, and he was her chief advocate.

Kirkpatrick said of Clausen, “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anyone who is more of a political maneuverer and political manipulator. I don’t believe we need a political manipulator as head of higher education in Louisiana.”

Clausen didn’t stay long. She submitted her resignation in 1989, saying it would facilitate “the process of establishing an operational team …” The federal courts were expected to force creation of one higher education superboard because of a desegregation order, but it didn’t happen.

The regents wanted a former president of Texas A&M University to become the next commissioner, but he turned the job down because of a pay dispute.

Sammy Cosper then served as commissioner from 1990 to 1993. He had been a vice president at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette). He was paid $104,000 and was non-controversial.

Politics entered the picture once again when Edwards intervened in the selection of the next commissioner. The regents had recommended a Tulane official and two out-of-state educators.

Edwards wanted Larry Crain, a cabinet member during one of his earlier administrations, who didn’t make the cut. Crain had been president of the Board of Trustees for State Colleges and Universities and president of Southeastern Louisiana University.

Governor called shots

“The forces of Gov. Edwards managed Monday to get their choice on the list of finalists for the commissioner of higher education job,” The AP reported in November of 1993.

Crain served from 1993 to 1996 at a beginning salary of $104,000 that eventually was raised to $135,000 annually. Some legislators got upset when a special bill was introduced to improve Crain’s retirement benefits.

The AP reported that Crain’s tenure had been marked by infighting among the regents. He decided to retire after getting a $31,000 pay increase.

Joe Savoie, who had been serving as interim commissioner, got the permanent job in 1996. He served until 2008 at a salary that climbed to nearly $300,000, which included housing and auto allowances. He proved to be an effective commissioner, who enjoyed the respect of legislators, and left the job to become president of ULL.

The regents hired Clausen again in 2008, and she eventually received a pay package totaling $425,000. She resigned unexpectedly last June after a secret retirement and her rehiring the next day. Purcell is taking her place.

As you can see, the higher education commissioner’s job has been controversial off and on since 1975. Purcell can overcome past history if he is serious about improving the regents’ strained relationship with legislators by meeting with them and giving them “all of the information they want and more.”

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



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