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Merger, He Wrote 

  Gov. Bobby Jindal touched off a firestorm last week when he suggested the University of New Orleans (UNO) and Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO) should merge and move into the University of Louisiana System. Actually, what the governor said was that he wanted the state Board of Regents, which oversees all higher education in Louisiana, to study the idea and report back by March 1. Predictably, those with a stake in maintaining the status quo were up in arms — six weeks before the study's results come in.

  Many no doubt suspect that the study is a "done deal" that will conclude precisely what Jindal has suggested. Truth be told, the regents have been studying ways to cut higher education costs for a while in response to the state's fiscal bind. Budgets at both UNO and SUNO have been whacked in recent years, but no one can truthfully argue that Louisiana's five post-secondary education systems aren't rife with programmatic duplication and bureaucratic waste. The idea of a UNO-SUNO merger was probably already under consideration by the regents, albeit quietly until Jindal's announcement. Now that the governor has signaled his support, the proposal will likely become a focal point of the legislative session that begins April 25.

  "We must do what's best for our students," Jindal said last week. "It cannot be driven by politics." Unfortunately, it will be impossible to keep politics out of this decision, particularly when it requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. Jindal added that any possible merger should include "better collaboration with nearby Delgado Community College," which is seriously overcrowded.

  We agree wholeheartedly with the governor on those points.

  Politics — especially attempts to protect bloated, dysfunctional political fiefdoms — should play no role in this decision; it should be all about serving students better. UNO and SUNO are important institutions, but this decision should not be about institutions; it should be about students — and how to give them educational excellence.

  Citing low graduation rates at UNO and SUNO, Jindal said the study "must be an objective analysis driven by facts." He's right. Only 5 percent of SUNO's freshmen graduate within six years; UNO's rate is better, but still a low 21 percent.

  We think Jindal also was correct to mention Delgado in this discussion. Though not part of a potential merger, Delgado plays a key role in preparing area students for the workforce. Moreover, in contrast to UNO and SUNO, Delgado's enrollment has surged in recent years. Delgado's campus was built to serve approximately 14,000 students, but its enrollment is currently more than 19,000. UNO and SUNO were built to serve a combined student body of roughly 24,000, yet their combined enrollments are less than 15,000. Even in flush economic times, those numbers are not tenable.

  We point out these facts not to endorse the merger prematurely, but to underscore the need for an honest, objective study. Under the best of circumstances, merging two universities will be difficult. It may even be impossible, or undesirable. We urge the regents to complete the study honestly, objectively and on time — and to provide all the facts and figures backing up their recommendation. We urge lawmakers to withhold judgment until the study is completed.

  Meanwhile, we hope Jindal will expand his higher ed to-do list. That list should include potential consolidations, downsizings and redirecting missions at all public colleges and universities — not just those in New Orleans. It also should include combining the four post-secondary management systems and five governing boards into one system governed by one board. The old model of separate systems (and boards) for LSU and Southern University just doesn't work. The main campuses never achieved "flagship" status outside Louisiana, and the satellite campuses have been treated like stepchildren. Academically, separate systems have given us duplication, inconsistency and mediocrity. Putting all post-secondary institutions into one system, under one board, will pave the way for the kinds of changes needed to put Louisiana's colleges and universities on the road to excellence.

  We think the governor is on the right track, but we hope he will expand his focus and push for wholesale reform of higher education. The budget crisis gives him the opportunity; the need to serve students better makes it a mandate.

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