A Post-Mortem On The Failure Of The SUNO-UNO Merger

It was the biggest legislative initiative of the session, and it was a bill touted by the governor and authored by the Speaker of the House. So when the SUNO-UNO merger bill died yesterday, without question there’s a lot of fallout to sort through.

Since that’s the kind of thing we do here, it’s time for us to begin sifting through the detritus.

For Gov. Bobby Jindal, the failure of the merger bill is an unmitigated disaster. Jindal staked no small amount of political capital on the merger, and it wasn’t a miscalculation for him to have done so. The governor is correct in advocating for changes to the way business is done in higher education in Louisiana; it is a crime for $40 million of our tax dollars to be poured every year into an institution which cannot graduate 10 percent of its students within six years. He is to be commended for seeking change.

But seeking change is one thing. Delivering change is another altogether. And Jindal, who has engendered the frustration of much of his conservative base for ignoring (they perceive) issues of importance, has struggled against a perception of ineffectiveness and timidity in dealing with the state legislature in the last two years. That he’s going down to defeat in a shining example disproving that narrative of timidity won’t help things.

Jindal’s loss on the merger bill isn’t fatal to his re-election by any means; he still needs an opponent before anyone can predict his demise. And politically, as twisted as it may be to suggest it Jindal is fortunate to have the Mississippi River flood crisis to show off his leadership; whatever failings Jindal is showing at the Legislature he does handle disasters as well as any governor Louisiana has had. But at this point it’s beginning to look like a governor who has almost no rivals for political hegemony in the state is nevertheless a non-factor in the passage or failure of legislation – a circumstance which seems almost inexplicable.

Of course, while the merger failed House Speaker Jim Tucker was able to salvage at least something for a key constituency of his. Tucker, a UNO graduate, appears likely to get his alma mater moved out of the LSU system and into the University of Louisiana system. That’s a move UNO people, who have for quite some time chafed at their university’s treatment by the LSU upper management, have wanted badly. Whether it’s actually good for UNO is a question for another time, but another question – whether it’s good for Tucker – is worth musing about. After all, the Speaker is contemplating a run for Secretary of State this fall, and the dynamics of that race in which Tucker, current incumbent Tom Schedler and newly-switched Republican state rep Walker Hines will all be fighting for a spot in the runoff along with sole Democrat candidate Caroline Fayard would tend to dictate that success in the primary depends on one of the Republicans emerging as the conservative standard-bearer.

And that’s where Tucker, for whatever wisdom might have driven the decision to punt on the merger, may have regretted not carrying the good fight to an unhappy conclusion. In the event he fell, say, 3-4 votes short of the 70 needed to pass a constitutional amendment out of the House, Tucker could have written the affair down to the voters as a product of a bad House of Representatives and a signal that in this election cycle the public has some work to do in eliminating more of the old guard before true reform can be had. That isn’t strictly true in this case, of course, but a statewide candidate is going to need to build a narrative. Tucker as a tilter at conservative windmills, even in defeat, would at least get some credit. Selling out the merger, which is how some would perceive him as doing, in order to achieve a picayune objective on the part of a regional college most of the state doesn’t care about, robs him of that.

On the other hand, Tucker had another consideration in mind. Among them, this: There are three white Democrat House members in New Orleans – Jeff Arnold, Walt Leger and Neil Abramson – who will occasionally vote with Tucker. All three represent districts which are majority black or close to it, and all three, if faced with the necessity to vote with Tucker on a merger would have to either vote against him or bring to flower a challenge from a black candidate to their left. Tucker wouldn’t be around to see the effects of the latter, but it’s a valid concern that by eliminating “reasonable” Democrats in districts which will not be represented by Republicans as currently constituted won’t create the improvement in the House conservatives would like to see.

And while it might in some cases serve conservatives and Republicans to wipe out a Leger or Arnold in a district where a conservative can win – there are several such districts which will flip to Republican this fall regardless of the SUNO-UNO merger vote – in losing an Arnold or Leger the result may be that it’s no longer possible to get 70 votes for structural reforms like the merger which implement conservative philosophy.

Tucker might not have been forced into such a salvage operation had Jindal been able to carry more water in the House. Jindal wasn’t, so Tucker had a Hobson’s choice. The guess here is he’s going to suffer from the effect of not carrying the fight to the bitter end in his bid for Secretary of State – but having managed to dissolve it relatively early in the session gives him opportunities to get things done he can be known and possibly rewarded for between now and its end.

Does SUNO win? Perhaps. That troubled institution survives this fight, but the momentum for downsizing the number of public four-year colleges in Louisiana isn’t going away, and with a six-year graduation rate of just eight percent SUNO remains the low-hanging fruit among those schools. State-mandated higher admissions standards going into effect next year will put a lot of pressure on the school’s enrollment and, as a result, funding. And the bad publicity surrounding (1) the proposed merger itself and the justification for it based on the awful grad rate numbers, (2) the immediate playing of the race card as a defense of the school’s survival and (3) some of the horrendous non-sequiturs and otherwise weak arguments offered in support of SUNO (it wasn’t designed to graduate anyone, little-known federal money shoveled solely to historically-black colleges would be threatened, its students have kids and jobs as if no other college students do, etc.) won’t be forgotten.

It’s a Pyrrhic victory at best, and when you’re in dire straits the way SUNO is you can’t win victory without validation. They haven’t. The “cooperative endeavor” between SUNO, UNO and Delgado which is essentially replacing the merger looks like fool’s gold for SUNO; it appears to direct resources away from UNO and Delgado into SUNO in an attempt to boost those terrible graduation rates, and it’s difficult to imagine how that arrangement will be satisfactory for those other schools. Should the cooperative endeavor not bear immediate fruit, there could be hell to pay.

The Legislative Black Caucus is indeed a winner in this fight, as they’ve managed to secure their only objective. They wanted to save SUNO at all costs, and they’ve managed to do so without having to give up anything to get it. They’ve engendered no love from anyone outside the caucus, but few members of the LBC have ever cared about that. They held together, and they preserved SUNO.

With one exception, that is. Rep. Rickey Hardy (D-Lafayette) came out in favor of the merger and bucked the rest of the Black Caucus in doing so. It was a courageous, perhaps foolhardy, decision for him to have done so, but it was also consistent with past criticisms he’s made of SUNO. In an election year one wonders whether Hardy hasn’t cut his own throat for nothing, and one wonders how his constituents will treat his position on the issue. Hardy might end up the biggest loser in the SUNO-UNO merger fight at the end of the day.



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