SUNO Backers Still Don’t Have A Good Argument

After earlier this week debuting a feeble attempt at a raison d’etre centered around training cadres of black male community leaders in special racially-segregated hothouses, the Southern University system’s muckety-mucks are mounting a fresh attack on what appears to be a relatively solid consensus for merging that university’s New Orleans campus with the University of New Orleans.

Today’s salvo appears at courtesy of Dr. Albert Samuels, a professor of political science from Southern’s Baton Rouge campus with a history of left-wing moonbattery – including holding programs on the justification for impeachment proceedings against George W. Bush (no word on similar programs for the current president despite the presence of nearly-identical complaints being made by many of the same people), blaming the lousy performance of East Baton Rouge Parish’s public-school system or the lack of economic development in North Baton Rouge on racism and whipping up student demonstrations on the Capitol steps by howling about tax cuts for the rich.

Samuels’ op-ed has as its centerpiece the idea that the attempt by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, endorsed by nine of 16 members of the Board of Regents and, from the sound of things, perhaps a majority of the state legislature to merge SUNO and UNO is based solely on politics.

Jindal’s manueverings are worthy of contempt not simply because he callously reopens painful racial wounds in this state by pushing to close a historically black university. Rather, his selective persecution of SUNO (as opposed to other institutions he could have focused on) exposes the blatant hypocrisy of this effort. This proposal is not the “bold reform” that the governor trumpets; rather, it represents political cowardice masquerading as courage.

The Professor then takes a whack at Baton Rouge Business Report publisher Rolfe McCollister, who in a piece for that publication’s current issue endorses the concept of a merger. McCollister makes many of the same arguments we’ve mentioned here at the Hayride – namely that the accusations of racism made ad nauseam by SUNO’s supporters ring hollow and that the university’s performance is difficult to justify. Samuels responds with an argument that would surprise no one…

This is indeed a watershed moment for our state, but not for the reasons that Rolfe McCollister offers. “Figures don’t lie,” a popular cliché’ goes, “but liars figure.” The graduation statistics at SUNO that have earned so much ink in the press present a distorted version of reality. In the first place, graduation rates are measured in specific time increments (most frequently in six year intervals)/; consequently, if some students take longer than six years to graduate, the institution is penalized by the measure. Fifty five percent of SUNO’s student body is comprised of students 25 years of age or older; it has the largest population of nontraditional students of any four-year institution in the state.  In fact, more SUNO students are enrolled in evening school than in its day classes. Students in this group almost invariably work either full-time or part-time and also have children to rear. As a consequence, these students are necessarily going to be part-time students (rarely will they be able to take 12 or more hours a semester). It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that students who take courses at this pace will require more time in order to graduate than the traditional 18-22 year old  undergraduate  population.

This, of course, is an argument requiring a fool for an audience. There is nothing distorted about the reality of SUNO’s graduation figures; they are what they are. They’ve been compiled by impartial researchers, and no one at or near SUNO argues that its six-year graduation rate stands above the single digits – Samuels claims an eight percent six-year graduation rate, but that figure has been placed as low as five percent by the Louisiana Department of Education.

What Samuels is attempting to do is offer excuses for the number. SUNO has commuter students, you see. SUNO students work their way through school. They’re part-time students. They have kids. Six years isn’t enough time to graduate.

Is Samuels attempting to make the case that SUNO is some magical, unique place?

Urban commuter universities are ubiquitous in America. Every major city in the country has at least one. They all have large numbers of students who take night classes, who work, who have kids, who are older than the traditional college kid. And every single one of them graduates a higher percentage of their students than does SUNO.

Samuels then wades into the treacherous waters of comparison between SUNO and other institutions in Louisiana.

Moreover, if abstract, decontextualized numbers are all that matters, LSU-Alexandria has a 4% graduation rate. Last I checked, eight is more than four. Why isn’t Governor Jindal going after LSU-A? Delgado, the institution he claims is growing leaps and bounds and needs more facilities, has a 2.1% graduation rate according to the Regents study used to justify merging SUNO and UNO. Yet, Jindal wants to expand Delgado while closing SUNO.  Are we using a double standard, Governor Jindal? Now who’s playing politics, Mr. McCollister?

Well, Professor, if the price for your assent in a SUNO-UNO merger is “going after LSU-A,” we’re all for that idea. LSU-Alexandria has no business offering four-year degrees with Louisiana College just across the river in Pineville and Northwestern State University just up I-49 in Natchitoches. That’s why LSU-A was a two-year institution – otherwise known as a junior college – until just a few years ago. In fact, part of the reason LSU-A’s six-year graduation rate is just four percent is that a large number of its students are there to pursue two-year associate’s – rather than four-year baccalaureate – degrees. The first four-year degrees at LSU-A weren’t handed out until December 2003, and it wasn’t until the 2009-10 academic year that more LSU-A students earned four-year degrees than two-year degrees – by a 143-127 margin. And incidentally, LSU-A claims a six-year graduation rate of nine percent, not four, based on data from the National Center for Educational Statistics. The discrepancy could be explained by subtracting the two-year graduates; but in comparison to SUNO one might ask whether the state’s educational purposes are better served by LSU-A’s AA degree-earners or SUNO’s dropouts.

But if Samuels wants to end the four-year degree program at LSU-A, that’s fine by us.

By the way, LSU-A’s current budget is around $20 million, about half of which comes from tuition. LSU-A has a total enrollment of 2,667 students, a little shy of the 3,100 SUNO claims despite a $40 million budget. LSU-A’s tuition comes to about $3,800 per year while SUNO’s is about $3,500. Keep those numbers handy.

Keep them handy, because we’re about to address Samuels’ other target, Delgado Community College. The Professor savages the New Orleans junior college for a graduation rate of 2.1 percent, and everyone – including the consultant upon whose study the Regents relied in suggesting a merger between SUNO and UNO – agrees that number has to improve. But it’s quite ironic that Samuels threw out the line about figures not lying but liars figuring, because just like in his LSU-A argument he’s “distorting reality.” Because what the Professor doesn’t inform his readers is that Delgado’s 2.1 percent graduation rate is a three-year figure. The same excuses he offers for SUNO’s failure to timely graduate students ought to apply to Delgado, no?

If not, and if we’re to accept the argument that Delgado’s numbers are a dismal failure along the lines of SUNO’s, then perhaps we should analyze our failures according to how expensive they are.

We mentioned before that LSU-A costs $20 million per year for 2,700 students. That comes to about $7,400 per student per year, $3,800 of which is covered by tuition. Taxpayers are subsidizing $3,600 per year per student there.

SUNO’s budget is $40 million for 3,100 students. That comes to about $12,900 per student per year, $3,500 of which is covered by tuition. Taxpayers are subsidizing $9,400 per year per student at SUNO.

And at Delgado?

Delgado’s budget was $43 million ($43,214,982) for the last academic year, on an enrollment of  about 19,000 students. That comes to about $2,300 per student per year. And tuition at Delgado comes to around $1,800 per year, meaning taxpayers are only subsidizing Delgado students to the tune of $500 per annum.

If we’re going to have failures, then by God let’s have failures like Delgado. At least we’re not going broke subsidizing them.

Samuels’ bizarre missive isn’t finished. Next he assails the concept of standardized testing in K-12 schools as a means of providing accountability (while decrying the New Orleans public schools as the worst in the state without allowing for the improving performance at that city’s charter schools), meandering into a similar attack on Jindal’s emphasis on college graduation rates on the basis that the state’s schools are given nothing to work with by the secondary schools.

And then, at long last, he comes to his point…

…While we should not give up on any student, college professors are not miracle workers.  Instead, the state needs to make substantial investments in early childhood education (especially Pre-K – third grade) to make sure that more of our young people start their school careers on firmer foundations so that fewer young people drop out in the first place and more of them are prepared for college.

Jindal does not want to consider this possibility because it might require investing some REAL MONEY on an issue that doesn’t fit within his narrow window of electoral expediency. To acknowledge this fact, he might have to actually utter the dreaded T-word  (TAXES). Now that would be leadership! Instead of doing something truly visionary, he resorts to the divisive style of politics that is his trademark by appealing to some of the worst instincts in the Louisiana electorate.

The move to close SUNO is calculated to shore up his bogus “reform” credentials with conservative voters in the state by taking on a traditionally Democratic constituency who was not likely to vote for him anyway. In the absence of a strong political opponent for the governor heading into the fall election, there is little risk to him in taking on this issue. If he succeeds, he will have accomplished something that people like Mr. McCollister have advocated for years. If he fails, he can say, “At least I tried.” Thus, for the Governor, it is a case of “heads I win, tails I win.”This is not a profile in political courage; rather, it is cynical, calculated example of political self-interest disguised by pretentious rhetoric about “doing what’s best for students” and taxpayers.

If the governor truly believes the proposed merger is in the best interests of the state, he has the right to his belief. Let’s debate it. But the governor and his apologists should spare us the self-serving, pompous rhetoric about how this has nothing to do with politics. Because it does.

It’s a spellbinder of a rant, though there’s little substance to it.

First of all, Louisiana’s educational funding isn’t lacking at the K-12 level. In 2008 we spent some $10,000 per student on K-12 education, placing us 22nd in the nation – ahead of California, Georgia, Florida and Texas. We need – as Jindal is only one of many leaders demanding – better bang for our buck. Not more spending. So Samuels’ demand for “REAL MONEY” comes off as a self-serving grab for other people’s earnings and an attempt to escape accountability. Left-wing academics in this state have been falling all over themselves in demanding higher taxes on the public for the last year, and the public isn’t interested in that appeal.

There is, of course, “he resorts to the divisive style of politics that is his trademark by appealing to some of the worst instincts in the Louisiana electorate.” That’s a naked accusation of racism on the part of white Louisianans, who apparently are not entitled to assess SUNO’s scandalously poor performance on any sort of objective basis and question the continued need for the current allocation of $40 million per year to a failed institution without being slimed as Klansmen. The rest of his argument, which essentially boils down to the idea that Jindal can trick us stupid racist Republicans into thinking him a reformer by targeting SUNO, since nobody at SUNO voted for him or ever will, and get points for trying even if he can’t finish the job.

This is somehow a cynical and cowardly move by Jindal, in Samuels’ formulation. Because it’s a lot easier to take on a project which will bring Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to Louisiana with race-baiting rhetoric and accusations of a return to slavery and Jim Crow (in support of a basically segregated university, no less!) than it is to just leave well enough alone and continue with the status quo. Samuels then closes by allowing that if Jindal sincerely believes we’d be better off without SUNO he has the right to that belief and it should be debated – and in the next sentence denying the governor that right by judging that this is all about politics. Some debate!

To recap, Samuels’ defense of SUNO is that other, much less expensive institutions which are not typically four-year schools have similarly low graduation rates, that K-12 education in Louisiana produces a lousy product which somehow accounts for the fact that SUNO’s graduation rate is 15 percent lower than any other traditional four-year institution in the state, and that white folks in Louisiana are racist and out to get SUNO for that reason.

He gives us no new defense of the state’s most expensive failure in higher education. No proposals for revamping SUNO’s mission or management in an effort to alleviate the concerns posed by SUNO’s critics. Just a loud, vitriolic, self-serving diatribe assaulting the proponents of revamping a bad system with tired epithets and a deflection of accountability.

It’s not a surprise, and it’s not a worthy justification to rethink the merger plan. Full speed ahead, please.



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