St. Charles Herald-Guide

Change in higher education

Special to the Herald-Guide - November 11, 2011

By John Maginnis
Formation of yet another state commission to study the governance of higher education should induce such yawns as elicited by your most boring professor. Canít we just cut to the chase to where the Legislature kills the bill and skip the dreary futility in between?

True, any serious attempt to form a single board to replace the five that currently govern state universities and community colleges can be set aside for now. The legislatively-created Governance Commission already has decided not to go there, and the Legislature, after kicking around the issue off and on for about three decades, is weary of it.

Yet, some big changes could be at hand, not from a top-down solution decided by experts and state politicians, but rather by what is bubbling up from local communities, from New Orleans to Shreveport, where leaders seek more influence over how their area institutions work and work together.

In a way, the regional movement got its start at the State Capitol this year, as the one positive thing to come from the bitter and racially divisive struggle over the proposed merger of the University of New Orleans and Southern University at New Orleans. After the Southern community rallied to stop the governor short of the two-thirds majority needed for the merger, the fall-back position of Speaker Jim Tucker--some think his primary motivation all along--was to transfer UNO from the LSU System into the University of Louisiana System.

Getting UNO out from under the LSU hierarchy and into UL, which is more a confederation of campuses, is viewed hopefully by business and civic leaders as a way of realizing its potential both for education and economic development.

Now, as the formalities of the UNO transfer are being worked out, support is gathering in north Louisiana for a more ambitious institutional shift. A group call Shreveport Initiative has commissioned a study of merging Louisiana Tech in Ruston with LSU Shreveport. Also envisioned is some link to the LSU Health Sciences Center, which operates the largest public hospital and only medical school in north Louisiana.

Louisiana Tech might have thought it would be welcomed into the LSU System, but they were quickly disabused of that notion by a stinging e-mail from President John Lombardi, who informed that the venue to discuss these matters was before the LSU Board of Supervisors. He also suggested that if Tech wanted to merge with someone, it ought to look in its own backyard to Grambling and UL Monroe.

The Shreveport folks were taken aback some, but they are pressing ahead with their study and intend to make their case to the Governance Commission. That body has no power to decide, but its recommendation could put some form of consolidation or realignment on the political agenda.

Itís not stopping there. The stateís new Higher Education Commissioner Jim Purcell, chief administrator for the Board of Regents, has been holding town hall meetings around the state to discuss the concept of regionalization in managing universities, regardless of what system they belong to now, and under the guidance, of course, of a more empowered Board of Regents.

Baby steps in that direction have begun in New Orleans, where, after the merger fight, UNO, SUNO and Delgado, the stateís largest community college, are working toward more collaboration across system lines. The three schools, within a bicycle ride of each other and serving different missions, have great potential to cooperate instead of compete.

A Shreveport consolidation would be much more complex, as LSU leaders would argue that Tech does not bring as much to a merger as it would derive from it, especially if the hospital and med school are part of the equation.

Yet, because LSU would rather be party to a deal than subject to one, Lombardi has formed a "work group" of board and staff members, which could offer input on any restructuring discussions at the Governance Commission.

The recommendation that counts the most, however, will come from the governor. He has not taken a public position, but LSU leaders, with whom heís had differences, believe he is encouraging the merger talk.

"We are interested in hearing from local leaders," said governorís chief of staff Stephen Waguespack. "It is not a process we are driving."

An LSU source is skeptical: "But are they riding shotgun?"