These are interesting — and challenging — times for the University of New Orleans. During the recent legislative session, Gov. Bobby Jindal tried to merge UNO with nearby Southern University at New Orleans. That idea proved to be politically untenable. Instead, lawmakers passed a measure moving UNO from the LSU System to the University of Louisiana System, which offers the Lakefront campus a more hospitable administrative climate. Meanwhile, UNO is without a chancellor. Former Chancellor Tim Ryan was abruptly terminated last fall, and a nascent search for his replacement by LSU officials was deferred while lawmakers debated UNO's move to the UL System. Now the search for a new leader at UNO has resumed, but with a brand-new committee.
Even more than moving the university to a different management system, the search for a new UNO president (the UL System uses the term "president" rather than "chancellor") will have an enormous local impact — not just at UNO, but across southeast Louisiana. UNO is a major urban research university and a vital economic engine for the entire metropolitan area. Historians credit the university, which was established in 1958, with creating the metro area's middle class. In its first half-century, UNO was blessed with outstanding leaders — from founding Chancellor Homer Hitt to the energetic Gregory O'Brien to Ryan. In these difficult economic times, when state budget cuts threaten programs at all public colleges and universities, it is vital the new search committee gets it right.
Simply put, UNO needs a leader who not only understands the uniqueness of New Orleans but also the unique challenges and opportunities that await UNO in the coming decade — and how UNO should respond to those challenges and opportunities. The new university president must be able to raise money as well as academic standards; he or she must have scholarly credentials as well as political skills — but the new president must not be part of Louisiana's inbred political network. In fact, the search for a new UNO president must be national in scope.
The 14-member search committee is dominated by members of the UL governing board, but it includes several voting as well as non-voting members from the New Orleans area. That's a good sign. The local non-voting members include businessman Gary Solomon, a UNO alumnus who briefly chaired the search committee for the LSU System; civic leader Susan Hess, also a UNO grad; UNO Student Government Association president John Mineo; and UL System president Randy Moffett, who previously served as president of Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond. No doubt Moffett's tenure at SLU allowed him to get to know the New Orleans region. Others on the committee with local ties include voting members David Guidry of Harvey, Gerald Hebert of Kenner and Renee Lapeyrolerie of New Orleans — all of whom are UL System board members — and UNO faculty representative Neal Maroney.
Also encouraging was Moffett's announcement the committee will hold all its meetings at UNO, starting with the first meeting this fall, and that all meetings will be open to the public. The first meeting will give the UNO community a chance to suggest qualifications desired in its new leader. A UL System announcement noted the committee will first hire a national search firm to attract qualified applicants.
Although lawmakers and Jindal approved UNO's move to the UL System, the transfer won't become official until it is OK'd by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, the accrediting body for institutions of higher learning. UL officials hope that approval will come at the association's December meeting — and that a new UNO president can be chosen next spring. "While it may be unusual to conduct a presidential search while the university's governance is in transition, it would be a disservice to UNO to delay the process," Moffett said. We agree.
UNO's success is vital to the region and to the state. That the university reestablished itself after Hurricane Katrina is a testament to the resiliency of its faculty and students. Now it's time for UNO to take its place among the nation's leading urban universities. Selecting the right person as UNO's next president will be the first and most important step in that journey.