Better late than never, never let a crisis go to waste, or whatever saying fits to describe an attempt to do what made far too much sense years ago, which for that reason didn’t get done, in the merging of the University of New Orleans and Southern University in New Orleans.
State Rep. Patrick Connick announced his intention to file a bill that would perform precisely that, four years after legislative majorities probably could have accomplished, but legislative supermajorities almost certainly would failed to engineer, the same. Back then, both institutions still were reeling from the aftereffects of the hurricane disasters of 2005, and SUNO had the additional distinction of having the lowest degree completion rate in the country – but given that its student body averaged a fog-a-mirror score of 15.5 on the American College Test (the national average is around 21, with a minimum of 8), it’s a wonder any student graduated from there.
Since then, matters have only gotten worse. UNO changed systems after the merger attempt, which also would have given Delgado Community College a formal link to the merged institution, but it continued to lose enrollment, which now is almost half of what it was a decade ago. SUNO got some brand spanking new infrastructure out of disaster recovery dollars but the state’s move to get baccalaureate-and-above schools out of the associates degree/certificate/remedial education businesses with a strengthening of admission requirements flushed around a sixth of its enrollment away, mostly full-time, first-time students.
With the state facing budgetary pressure that could slice hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer support from Louisiana’s colleges, and with any tuition increase unlikely to make up even most of this withdrawal, given their losses in enrollment in the past few years no two schools in the state would be hit harder than these two located a little over a mile apart. It should be a no-brainer that together, which would make them not even three-quarters of UNO’s size in 2005, they could shed a fair degree of duplication in the staff and administrative areas, and some in the instructional area, with considerable cost savings that could help out somewhat for fiscal year 2016 but reap major dividends in the years ahead.
Naturally, being this involves academia and jobs would be lost – even worse than U.S. Postal Service employees do academicians (once tenured) have dyed into their DNA the attitude that they have a divine right to a job for life – both institutions, for no good reason, don’t think much of the idea. Many SUNO backers more benignly argue that its presumed special purpose of educating the most disadvantaged students would be lost, although with its dismal completer rate it’s hard to say it was doing all that well at this task. More malignly, others insinuate its dissolution represents an attack on education of blacks as it is a Historically Black University and College.
From some UNO supporters’ perspectives, reasons of status and class cloud their judgment. It won’t be said in polite company, but too many see bringing on some of SUNO’s administrators, staff, faculty, and students as too disruptive (making the reasonable assumption that the merger would be a matter of pouring the smaller institution into the larger). Faculty members are a clubby lot, and resist the idea of letting into their departments people they never hired or tenured. Ambitious administrators would find themselves with some new competitors that possibly could push them organizationally sideways or even cause their demotions, if not discharging them. SUNO students, with at least some justification in the past that may no longer be present because of the new admissions standards, are perceived by some supportive of UNO as dilutive of the school’s quality and forces more instructional effort than they would prefer towards accommodating this changed student body. This is what is meant, if not said aloud, attached to statements like the one made by UNO Pres. Peter Fos that any such attempt would be like “trying to take an apple and merge it with an orange.”
But it’s just not that complicated. A plan could be put in place over the next year to merge, consolidating all personnel on the UNO campus, while the SUNO campus could become an extension of Delgado. There are complicating factors, but nothing that could not be sorted out, and savings at first would not amount to much, but it’s very hard to believe that the per student cost of instruction within a few years would not go down compared to that of two separate universities, and significantly.
Of course, the two-thirds requirement to achieve this means getting a few black legislators, who typically view the HBUC Southern University System as a necessary commitment regardless of cost, to go along with it. Yet surely they can understand the black students would be better off at a mutually strengthened new University of New Orleans than at a teetering, vulnerable SUNO – especially if the current crisis causes its collapse. Some liberal Democrats who see higher education (with some justification) as a hotbed of fellow travelers ideologically and patronage sink will resist this change to preserve the reach of academia’s footprint as much as possible; enough of them also will have to see reason, and place it before partisanship.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Sen. Conrad Appel says it’s too early to consider seriously a merger of any schools. If so, it’s not very much early. The idea should be on the table as soon as Gov. Bobby Jindal unveils his FY 2016 budget next week, or else it cannot serve as a mature policy option with maximal chance of success. That is, after all, the end goal: at least one fiscally healthy public university serving the greater New Orleans area. At this point, a UNO-SUNO merger promises the best chance of this happening.