Most of us knew the proposal to merge Southern University of New Orleans with the University of New Orleans could eventually become a racial issue, and we weren’t disappointed.
One of the best ways to promote or kill any plan is to inject racism into the mix. Race has always been a big part of the fabric of American society, and we seem destined to have to deal with it for eternity.
Forget race for a moment, if that is possible, and let’s look at what is being proposed here by Gov. Bobby Jindal and two legislators from the affected New Orleans area.
A merger of the two universities would create the University of Louisiana at New Orleans, pretty much along the lines of the Universities of Louisiana at Lafayette and Monroe. Both are successful institutions of higher education.
SUNO and UNO would leave the Southern and LSU management systems and become part of the University of Louisiana System. The ULS board manages McNeese, ULL, ULM, Grambling, Louisiana Tech, Northwestern, Southeastern and Nicholls state universities.
Two different colleges would exist within the ULNO structure. Each would have different admissions criteria, academic focus and course and program offerings.
Speaker of the House Jim Tucker, RAlgiers, is one of the sponsors of legislation to merge the two universities. Tucker last week said he sees those two colleges much like the productive relationship that existed at one time between Tulane University and Newcomb College for women.
Newcomb closed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but Tulane became even stronger because of the strengths each had to offer one another. The same situation is possible under the proposed SUNO-UNO merger.
Delgado Community College of New Orleans would also become part of the consolidation. It would provide developmental and general education courses and college transfer degree programs. The goal here would be to ensure that students get into curriculum areas to which they are well-suited, and that will give them the quality education too many aren’t getting under the current structure.
Poor graduation rates at both SUNO and UNO that aren’t improving fast enough are the main motivation for the consolidation proposal.
Most of this information was quickly drowned out by the howls of protest and racism.
Tucker said the racism accusation bothers him because he considers it a “red herring,” a deliberate attempt to divert attention from the real issues in this proposal.
The protests of racism definitely surfaced before lawmakers and others had a decent chance to digest the merger plans. You get the sense that the goal of the opposition all along has been to kill the idea long before some might begin to see it has merit.
Some people are against any change at all because of their own economic interests, Tucker said.
“This is bigger than Southern. It’s what best for the (New Orleans) community,” he said.
State Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, takes a radically different view.
“This is an attack on African Americans in New Orleans, and this has to stop,” Badon said at a rally last week. “We are going to fight you tooth and nail on this, and this will not go quietly into the night.”
Badon, who is an official at SUNO, has an effective legislative record. However, he was definitely fanning the flames of racism with that quote.
Gov. Bobby Jindal played right into the hands of the protesters when he called a news conference at the same time as the rally.
“That tells me the devil is busy,” said Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge.
State Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, said Jindal picks targets when he is trying to improve his poll numbers.
“He goes and finds the nearest African Americans and kicks them while they’re down,” Morrell said.
A New Orleans minister even compared Jindal to Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
You can see how the more than 200 protesters were whipped into a frenzy by the end of the rally.
The House and Senate Education Committees will hear the SUNO-UNO consolidation legislation filed by Tucker and Sen. Conrad Appel, RMetairie, when they meet Wednesday and Thursday this week. Efforts are already under way to pack the hearing rooms with merger opponents, which is not unusual in controversial situations like this one.
Both bills will get fair hearings because that is the way the process works. And the taxpayers of Louisiana who fund all of higher education in the state deserve nothing less.
One can only hope that the best educational development possible for students doesn’t get lost in the cries of racism we have heard so much in recent days. I happen to think that the vast majority of the men and women we elect to the Louisiana Legislature and other public offices aren’t racists running around with devious goals.
We can’t avoid race as an issue, but we can do our best to keep it from becoming a tool used to destroy the goodwill that exists between many races of Americans.
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].