Emotion has overshadowed some of the central themes in a move to consolidate the missions of Southern University of New Orleans and the University of New Orleans.
Charges of racism always surface when issues of this nature are discussed. It is a quick and too-easily-accepted accusation when logical arguments can’t be discredited any other way.
Here are the nuts and bolts of the current public higher education situation in New Orleans as clearly stated in a study report by a national group:
“The institutions as currently operating are not meeting the needs of the students in the region,” according to the report. “Further, there is no evidence that the institutions, within their current governance and leadership, will improve their performance.”
You can’t put it much simpler than that.
Unfortunately, Gov. Bobby Jindal played right into the hands of those crying racism when he failed to appoint a representative number of minority members to the state Board of Regents, the coordinating authority for all of higher education in Louisiana.
Jindal has made no secret of his desire to change the roles of SUNO and UNO, and he backed the study to determine whether the solution had merit. Opponents did their best to try and kill the study, but it survived. And the Board of Regents this week voted 9-6 to pursue one of its recommendations.
What’s in plan?
The proposal that survived would have SUNO and UNO become the University of Greater New Orleans. However, the new institution would have two separate academic groups — “urban research” and “metropolitan” units.
SUNO would become the metropolitan unit, and UNO the urban research unit. Each would have its own separate accreditation, admission standards and faculty governance.
Both would be placed under the University of Louisiana System that currently manages 8 regional higher education institutions, including McNeese State University. SUNO is now under the Southern University System and UNO is part of the LSU System.
A third part of the proposal would create a University College that would be run by Delgado Community College. It would be housed at the metropolitan unit and would handle admissions and college preparatory resources in order to funnel students to the proper campuses.
Aims McGuinness, senior associate of the group that did the study, said the plan isn’t actually a merger. He said that would do away with SUNO’s role and limit educational opportunities.
Supporters of SUNO who want to maintain the status quo aren’t accepting any explanations, however rational they might be.
Demetrius Sumner, student body president at Southern University and a student representative on the Board of Regents, said this is a merger proposal in every sense of the word.
Jindal would have served his cause much better had he bothered to take members of the Regents into his confidence. The board’s 9-6 vote doesn’t speak well for the plan’s future success.
Vic Stelly of Moss Bluff, a member of the Board of Regents and former state legislator, spoke for the six who opposed the governor’s plan.
“That aggravates me,” Stelly said of Jindal’s failure to seek their support.
“What are we, chopped liver?” he asked.
Federal money is also at the root of the opposition to changing SUNO’s status. It doesn’t want to lose access to millions of dollars that are given annually to historically black colleges and universities.
You can’t help but wonder whether those funds are being used wisely when the facts don’t indicate the money is getting the desired academic results.
Another aspect of the opposition needs to be taken into consideration. How many critics, for example, are employed by the historically black institutions? Have the schools become havens for some who are politically well-connected?
State Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, will sponsor the legislation needed to put this proposal into motion. Approval will require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. And to his credit, Appel admits there is a down side.
“I’m sorry it’s going to hurt some people and it will,” Appel told WVUE Fox 8 News in New Orleans. “I’m the first person to admit there’s going to be pain and suffering for a time, but at the end of the day there’s a million-plus people in this region that will benefit dramatically from this type of a redesign.”
Private universities in New Orleans have excellent academic credentials. They include Tulane University, Xavier University, Dillard University, Loyola University and Our Lady of Holy Cross College.
Speaker of the House Jim Tucker, R-Algiers, a UNO graduate, believes his city also deserves to have at least one outstanding public university. He thinks the effort being promoted here by Jindal and others is one way to reach that goal.
It’s a shame that the many diversions trying to discredit this effort and Jindal miscues have hurt its chances of succeeding. Robert Bruno of Covington, a member of the Board of Regents, cut to the quick of why change is so critical for future generations.
“If anyone believes that what we have now is acceptable, you’re wrong,” Bruno said. “You’re cheating yourselves and you’re cheating your children.”
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 [email protected].