SADOW: Political Shuffling to Benefit Court, Maybe NSU

The political musical chairs that may commence with a new Northwestern State University presidency in the near future could lead, with voters’ ratification, to a quality lineup in the state’s Supreme Court – but at the cost of refreshing a questionable tendency in governance of Louisiana’s higher education institutions.

At the end of May, NSU Pres. Marcus Jones announced he accepted an offer to be kicked upstairs in the University of Louisiana System. The ULS just prior to statewide elections last fall swiftly moved to put former Grambling State University Pres. Rick Gallot into the system presidency, but then hit the brakes when Republican incoming Gov. Jeff Landry asked to meet with Gallot prior to any final contract offering.

Landry has no control over such a hiring decision. But he does have control over appointments to the ULS Board of Supervisors, almost half of whom come up for that at then end of the year, and most of them before Landry’s term is up (and all of them if he serves another). While because of the political allegiances of some they will not return, many have a decent chance of reappointment and not acquiescing might have mooted that.

Perhaps Gallot needn’t have worried about Landry’s opinion, as he actually fronted an effort while in the state Legislature to preserve a more favorable congressional map for Landry when the future governor found himself on the short end of the reapportionment in 2011 that led to his loss the next year. Regardless, Gallot received the offer and took the job at year’s start.

With Jones now becoming Gallot’s assistant and opening the NSU top job, one applicant for it is Republican Supreme Court Assoc. Justice Jimmy Genovese. While a GOP member, he perhaps is the most likely Court member of his party on rulings to favor more traditional Democrat special interests, having been the favored candidate by trial lawyers and typically is less enthusiastic about more stringent criminal justice measures favored by Landry and his party.

Importantly for the job, he has no experience in anything but serving in a law firm and, as he has for almost three decades, sitting as a judge. Not that this disqualifies him in any way in the universe of Louisiana higher education: the state has a regrettable history of sliding politician lawyers into higher education institution chief’s jobs, with Gallot himself as the latest example having gone from the Legislature into leading his alma mater.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have people from outside academia assume chief executive jobs in academia; this space has argued for decades that the increasing insularity of academia, which in and of itself also isn’t a bad thing insofar as it needn’t replicate the “real world” because if that’s an experience somebody wants then they can skip academic pursuits and stay in the “real world,” has gone too far to divorce itself from its true purpose of encouraging critical thinking and assessing the human condition into adopting the posture of a rogue virus that tells people how to think according to an inferior worldview crippled precisely because it’s not built upon unbiased and dispassionate analysis indicative of critical thinking. That desirability of avoiding insularity includes bringing in politicians to run colleges or systems when appropriate.

The best recent example of that is GOP former Sen. Ben Sasse brought in to run the University of Florida. But note that Sasse already had extensive experience in academia, including administration, and thereby should have the proper appreciation about how an institution or system works. In great contrast, Gallot had and Genovese had zero such experience, and not even any in a high-level managerial position such as had by former Louisiana State University System Pres. Sean O’Keefe (who also had experience as a university faculty member). Limiting your experience solely to the practice of law and politics creates a very narrow knowledge base when it comes to running a university.

Although, indisputably, it gives you skill in navigating the political aspects of the job. The problem then, of course, is that if that turns out to be a component so valuable to the job that politicians with no academic connection except being an alumnus of a place (Genovese’s undergraduate degree is from NSU) enter into these jobs, that suggests the job is too politicized to begin with.

Suffice to say, the way the ducks have lined up if Landry wants Genovese in the president’s chair in Natchitoches, it will happen. If so, it doesn’t mean with his background as it is that Genovese couldn’t do a good job, but it does suggest he is less likely to have the skills to accomplish that.

And if his assumption of the job does transpire, a chain reaction of job shuffling may set off, conditioned by another Landry initiative earlier this year: his cajoling the supermajority Republican Legislature to redraw Supreme Court boundaries that in all likelihood will cost his party a seat. Landry advocated for this for years as part of a two-prong strategy to alleviate malapportionment, although legally that condition doesn’t matter in judicial mapping. One would help the state to get out from under a consent decree concerning the Court, and the other would have been to expand the Court to nine members, but this would require a constitutional amendment that fell short of the supermajorities needed to send to the voters, which if approved would have reduced a bit the impact of handing over a seat to Democrats.

The consolation prize for Landry, however, is a plan that allows allies of his, whose pasts suggest quality judicial agendas, potentially to nab two Court seats. Genovese’s departure opens up a seat a couple of years early, in a redrawn district that allows Cade Cole, an attorney and administrative law judge in Lake Charles, to vie for the spot.

Cole has Landry ally GOP Atty. Gen. Liz Murrill’s support, but getting him into office would be a lift. Incumbents almost never lose such races, so when seats open – often taking one or two decades to do so – ambitious individuals see this as their one shot in their working lives to make it to the Court. Particularly at advantage are appellate court judges because they have run and won before in the next-largest jurisdictions and have built up a network of supporters within the legal community who have disproportionate influence in campaigning on behalf of candidates (judicial candidate under the law technically can’t campaign, so surrogates do so). Cole has no such comparable base, so it would have to take some effort by allies such as Murrill to get him across the finish line either by clearing the field to some degree or in actual electioneering if he does draw quality opponents.

Another seat could also see a change to the liking of Landry and his allies. The new lines would permit Landry confidante and former chief aide when he was attorney general Bill Styles to run for a seat to open in 2028 due to term limits. This would give Styles, now an appellate court judge, plenty of time to build support from which a campaign could be launched.

The NSU job may be settled before the end of the month. That outcome may serve as part of a demonstration of a political long game being executed by Landry that could bring superior jurisprudence to the Court, but uncertain administrative ability to NSU.

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