In recent months, we have criticized Gov. Bobby Jindal for a lack of boldness in his approach to dealing with the state's huge fiscal crisis — and for appearing disengaged as he crisscrossed the country promoting himself and his book. For too long, Jindal seemed to set his sights on national office, his denials notwithstanding. In recent weeks, we are happy to report, Jindal has reversed course, particularly with regard to addressing some longstanding issues in public higher education. On Jan. 18, the governor announced his support of a proposed merger between the University of New Orleans (UNO) and Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO). Last week, Jindal added his support for combining Louisiana's five higher-education governing boards into one — another reform we support. That's just the start, according to his office.
At long last, Jindal is showing the kind of transformational boldness he promised voters in his 2007 campaign. In addition to combining the five higher-ed governing boards, Jindal's office confirmed to Gambit last week that he also supports a single system of higher-ed management — in contrast to the four separate (and often competing) systems that currently manage post-secondary education in Louisiana. The old order is wasteful, duplicative, outmoded and past due for elimination. Kudos to Jindal for taking on this fight.
It will not be easy. This is an election year, and lawmakers historically are loathe to tackle controversial issues in election years. But this year also is different: Louisiana faces an unprecedented $1.6 billion revenue shortfall, and there simply is no way to postpone the day of reckoning until after the election. Moreover, polls consistently show that voters want legislators to reduce state spending — now and in the long haul.
The governor’s proposals will require a two-thirds vote in both legislative chambers. The UNO-SUNO merger will have an additional layer of racial overtones. As part of the Southern University System, SUNO is often referred to as a “historically black university.” However, SUNO’s history dates from the late 1950s, and it was founded as an attempt to perpetuate segregated “separate but equal” institutions. In fact, leading civil rights advocates loudly opposed SUNO’s creation, calling it an attempt to circumvent the historic 1954 desegregation ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. That historic opposition to SUNO’s creation makes the current outcry against the merger from black lawmakers seem ironic, if not misplaced.
As we have noted previously, both UNO and SUNO are underperforming institutions. Each has a six-year graduation rate that is significantly below southern and Louisiana averages, though both universities argue that they serve many non-traditional students. Jindal must address and overcome these and other arguments.
Critics say Jindal is pushing these ideas now because he wants to look good at election time. So what? The governor's motives don't matter nearly as much as his attempt to do what's right — and merging UNO and SUNO is the right thing to do. So are combining the five higher-ed governing boards into one and eliminating the four management systems. Only a single system governed by a single board can bring the kind of top-to-bottom reforms — including programmatic consolidations — needed to take public higher education to the next level in Louisiana.
Jindal's fight won't end with governance, management and mergers, however. He proposes freeing individual institutions to manage their own finances and affairs — and raise tuition when necessary. To that end, Jindal wants to expand the GRAD Act that he pushed last year with House Speaker Jim Tucker. His ideas include raising the threshold for review of purchases, allowing colleges to carry forward budget surpluses, giving institutions more direct control over capital development projects, and encouraging them to raise academic standards and student performance. In addition to these proposals, we hope the governor also will consider merging campuses and consolidating programs in other parts of the state — particularly north and central Louisiana, which has six four-year universities in relatively close proximity.
Jindal has been criticized, rightly, for hoarding his political capital for the past few years. Higher education is the perfect place to start spending it. He has staked out a bold set of reforms that will require all his political might to win approval. It's a fight worth fighting, and we wish him well.