More than a year ago — and several times before that — we stated in this space that Louisiana must combine its Balkanized system of multiple higher-education fiefdoms ("Fiscally Indefensible," Oct. 20, 2009). The financial "cliff" that awaits Gov. Bobby Jindal and state lawmakers in the next fiscal year, which begins in just seven months, presents not only an unprecedented crisis but also a perfect opportunity for Jindal and legislators to fix publicly funded post-secondary education in Louisiana. The "fix" is easy to state but difficult to implement: Combine Louisiana's politically competing and academically duplicative higher-education systems — and their byzantine, wasteful governing boards — into a single system. Nothing short of that makes sense.
As the Baton Rouge Advocate recently noted, Louisiana funds 14 four-year colleges and universities — 10 of which have football teams — yet we have fewer people than Houston's metro area. Something is seriously wrong with this picture, but the answer isn't as simple as closing down some colleges and universities. As state Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, noted in the Advocate, each institution is "protected" by one or more powerful state lawmakers. Combine that with a pathologically risk-averse governor who would rather talk (and write) about leadership than actually show some of it, and you get what we have now: a state with too many four-year institutions, none of which are adequately funded and all of which are backsliding deeper into mediocrity.
Jindal's approach is to cut across the board, which only spreads the pain — and the mediocrity. Ultimately, Louisiana must take the painful but necessary steps to merge some institutions and change the missions of others. That will not happen as long as we have four separate post-secondary education systems governed by five separate boards. We must attack the root of the problem: Scrap the separate systems; merge them into one statewide system; establish a single board to govern all public post-secondary institutions; and empower that board to make the unified system just that — a single, integrated system of local two-year community colleges that feed regional four-year colleges and a few flagship universities.
Ultimately, we believe all post-secondary institutions can continue to exist, but some must change their missions and roles. The overarching goal of the new governing board should be maintaining existing centers of excellence, creating new centers of excellence, and eliminating duplication and mediocrity. Saving taxpayer money is important, but creating and maintaining excellence comes first. If managed prudently, the new single system will cost less and produce better results.
Dismantling the current model of competing higher-ed systems is paramount, and no better argument for it exists than the LSU system. Allegedly our state's "flagship" university, LSU actually suffers under this model because its politically charged governing board and "system" staff expend far too much time, energy and resources building and sustaining their institutional empire — and keeping constituent institutions, like UNO, in check. The result: Under its current leadership, LSU has regressed and is on track to regress further because of impending budget cuts.
If all universities were part of a single system, and if none of them were under the thumb of another, then a single governing board could properly define their missions and chart their futures. Dismantling the LSU system, for example, would free the Baton Rouge campus to realize its dream of becoming a true flagship university. Similarly, it would free UNO and other campuses from the oppressive rule of the "system" board and staff, which historically have been more concerned with stifling growth at non-Baton Rouge campuses than with improving the flagship institution.
The truth is, Louisiana needs more than one flagship university — but they can't all be flagships. They can, however, all become part of a unified system focused on excellence. To get there, Louisiana needs a new, single post-secondary education board. Equally important, the new board should include no more than one member from each of the existing boards — and they should retain a whole new set of lawyers and consultants. This is crucial. We cannot afford a "lite" version of higher-ed reform. The systems need to go as well as their boards.
Louisiana doesn't need to scrap colleges and universities; it needs to scrap the systems — folks who preside over the current mess.