SADOW: Carter’s Bills On Higher-Ed Boards Need Passage

As well as any bills can do, HB 588 and HB 696 will increase the chances of the myriad of higher education governing boards in Louisiana having informed and accomplished members serve as opposed to political hacks with minds set more on making sure certain interests get “theirs” than with higher education.

Both proposed by Rep. Steve Carter, HB 588 would amend the Constitution to allow for additional qualifications to serve on these boards, as well as to require appointments to attempt to reflect diversity in race and gender for the Board of Regents and for the Board of Supervisors of Community and Technical Colleges. HB 696 would spell out those qualifications. Yesterday, the former advanced, while the latter got hung up over specifics and will be fine-tuned for later debate.

Presently, of the 75 members across the boards, or 93 percent of their entire memberships, that the governor appoints, the only qualification is that certain numbers come from certain congressional districts. As written, HB 696 in all five instances would mandate that a member be an experienced high-ranking officer of a company in a prominent industry; and/or hold a master of business administration degree or have lengthy private sector managerial experience; and/or be three graduates of state public schools with associate, baccalaureate, and post-baccalaureate degrees among them; and/or one be nominated from five by two “good government” groups and a business interest group; have one who has experienced in economic or workforce development in the public sector; and have one who has budgeting and human resources experience in the public sector.

As written, these qualifications strike a good balance between trying to inject some relevant background into appointees and not making qualifications so specific that the governor or groups would have a difficult time finding people to fill the cubbyholes created. At the margins, some changes could be made. For example, gubernatorial Democrat candidate state Rep. John Bel Edwards, who can sound reasonable when he wants to, in the hearings of HB 696 by the House Committee on Education said the inclusion of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry as one of the three selectors of nominees ought to be balanced with another group whose interests lie opposed to business. No doubt Carter wanted an odd number of selectors in order to hash out disputes among them, but perhaps the best thing would be to keep just the two other groups and mandate any nominations forwarded must get agreement from both.

Then there’s state Rep. Pat Smith, who only sounds reasonable accidentally. During hearings, she began to complain that using the good government groups and LABI as selectors were problematic as “many of these organizations generally don’t have the wherewithal and points of references to nominate individuals that are unlike themselves, to make it very ‘soft.’” Not only might this come as a surprise to, for example, the several female executive officers of LABI, but it also shows exactly what’s wrong with the present system.

That is, the Smiths of the world see these appointments more as patronage sinks to pander to special interests and ideological imperatives than as policy-making positions demanding maximal competence. In her world, it’s more important what a person looks like than what they can do, and that people who do not have certain characteristics are disqualified biologically from being able to make informed decisions on the basis of right reason, both as appointees or selectors. More generally, governors in the past have been known to appoint people more known for who they represent and what they have done to help him get elected than in their having expertise in the issues that surround higher education and demonstrated good decision-making ability that focuses on  society as a whole, not parts of it.

This isn’t to say that current Gov. Bobby Jindal necessarily has put unaccomplished stiffs hewing to parochialism on these boards, nor that his appointees don’t have the ability to make wise higher education policy. It’s just that without qualifications as suggested by Carter it’s so much easier for any governor to appoint some hack as a sop to partisan or special interests that helped elect him. And as long as people with Smith’s attitudes infest pockets of Louisiana politics, that’s a very real possibility.

Something close to Carter’s bills in form and content should pass out of the Legislature, with the one signed by Jindal and the other ratified by the people. As such, as these bills wend their way through the process, supporters need to be wary of those who might try openly to derail them, but also those who seek to put so many qualifications representing so many thumbs stuck in the pie that it becomes unworkable and therefore providing the perfect excuse to stop it.

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