SADOW: Landry Regents Picks, Agenda to Shape Policy

While conservatives aren’t wrong in expressing concern over some of Republican Gov. Jeff Landry’s appointments to the Louisiana State University Board of Supervisors, understand that in policy terms that it does little injury to their cause.

Last week, after a June meeting where several just-expired appointees served, Landry made his picks to replace them. Some weren’t and rewarded with new terms, while other new picks were promising. However, three of them irked observers on the political right because these new supervisors, especially in one case, hadn’t been their allies, if one having been an outright opponent.

The choices of Jimmy Woods and Rémy Starns appeared to be forms of political payback. Holdovers, Woods is an ally of Landry non-enemy Democrat state Sen. Cleo Fields, who fronts the most extensive network of black Democrat party activists in the state and who stayed largely out of the governor’s race last year despite Landry facing his main opposition from a black Democrat, while Starns is the state public defender who went to bat for Landry’s reforms of the soon-to-be-renamed-to Office of the State Public Defender, but who otherwise has stumped for Democrats.

But the one that appears entirely intolerable is of trial lawyer John Carmouche. He headed up efforts that over the years raised into eight figures to support Democrats favorable to trial lawyers, with a lot of that backing Democrat former Gov. John Bel Edwards. He also supported lobbying efforts against lukewarm tort reform that passed into law four years ago. And, his firm is behind a slew of lawsuits filed by parish governments trying to squeeze money out of energy firms based on unfair retroactive application, faulty logic and bad science. However, like Fields, Carmouche stayed largely out of the governor’s race, creating an uncharitable interpretation of this appointment as paying protection money.

On the surface, these three appointments (and perhaps another, of long-serving Lee Mallet whose ability to act as a political chameleon doesn’t commend his service) are slaps in the face to conservative supporters of Landry who envision his position as one to support other conservatives. The sting isn’t very deep, however, when considering the practical import of service on the Board of Supervisors.

Which is, in the convoluted scheme of things, a glorified patronage sink. Louisiana’s Rube Goldbergesque governance of higher education has functions of policy and management separate between the Board of Regents and its four system boards. As such, while administration carries with it certain actions that have policy implications, the real policy action and direction occurs from above at the Regents level.

The most important policy decision the management boards can perpetrate is systems presidencies, which in the case of LSU’s also means leadership of the flagship campus. Typically, because they are on the ground as opposed to, for the most part, dilletantes in supervisors’ seats, they tend to lead the management boards around and their policies become system policy.

At present, for LSU that’s headed by the politically-astute William Tate IV, who prior to his administrative career displayed all the leftist bad taste that academia can muster, but as soon as he had a whiff of status, demonstrated he would play along with whoever wielded political power. That has carried over into his reign at LSU, such as his quietly, perhaps subversively, rolling back the public faces of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives as it became clear both the Governor’s Mansion and Capitol were displeased at the past level of emphasis.

Yet keep in mind that ultimately policy is decided by the Regents, but guided by the Legislature. For example, if wacky and academically suspect programs that are more political advocacy than promotion of genuine scholastic endeavor and student learning (such as Justice Studies at my alma mater), it is the fault of the management board for forwarding these but more the fault of the Regents for ratifying that. And above all this is the Legislature and Landry, who can enact statutes to direct the Regents on down, as it recently did with Act 641, that forces management boards to report DEI activity by early next year with the hopeful intent of future legislation circumscribing DEI’s malevolent aspect, such as making illegal the requiring of “diversity statements” as part of personnel actions.

So, insofar as the impact on policy, management boards don’t have much as long as the Regents and Legislature keep a critical eye on them. They can make grand symbolic gestures, like the ill-advised stripping of former LSU president Troy Middleton’s name off the campus library because of presumed racial thought crimes, but their policy impact unless allowed to run wild will be minimal.

Indeed, these appointments carry little policy weight precisely because they get made for symbolic reasons. Especially in the LSU case, with such baubles as free football tickets, the nature of the rewards for appointment tends to drive the amount of policy-making potential.

Where it really matters is with the Regents, where Landry will get his first crack at appointments starting at the end of the year. Here, he can’t mess around with idiocy, meaning he needs to dump figures like Collis Temple III whose past use of his position to inject general incoherence and ignorance into commentary on issued of the day is poor advertisement for the quality of Louisiana higher education.

Still, even if dealing with more symbolic appointments, Landry can’t make a mistake such as with Carmouche. Even if largely symbolic and his views should end up a distinct minority on the Board, Carmouche is receiving a reward for past bad behavior. For example, in the close 2019 election won by Edwards, it could be argued electioneering efforts made by Carmouche made the difference. Plus, his posting may have a practical negative impact on LSU’s mission and future; for example, LSU has its world-class Center for Energy Studies that could see donations to it diminish and reluctance by scholars to participate in it given Carmouche’s very public antipathy towards the oil and gas industry.

Also consider that Landry himself arranged to moot Carmouche’s destructive impact on the state’s energy sector. The suits he brought on behalf of parishes Landry when attorney general eviscerated by creating a framework that required legislative intervention that never will come, and which even Landry himself should veto if enabling legislation unfathomably ever made it to his desk.

Landry’s agenda for higher education will become much more defined by his Regents appointments and by how he provides policy leadership over academia especially beginning next year. As a result, conservatives shouldn’t be unduly discouraged for the prospects of steering higher education in the state towards a more faithful promulgation of what university education should be all about.

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