St. Charles Herald-Guide

Higher Ed issues on Spring Break

Special to the Herald-Guide - March 9, 2012

By John Maginnis, LaPolitics.com

Another session of the Legislature sets to convene with the usual raft of bills to make over the management of higher education. Proposed legislation would strengthen the Board of Regents, let schools raise tuition without legislative approval, cap state-funded scholarships and merge two North Louisiana universities. Prospects are very strong that none of them will pass.

After last term’s futile quest for a single governing board and last year’s racially divisive attempt to merge two New Orleans universities, this Legislature and Gov. Bobby Jindal seem ready to go on spring break from re-thinking higher education.

There is too much else to do. The session agenda already is crowded with more controversial issues than in the last four years combined. Besides the perennial budget challenges, there will be pitched battles over teacher tenure, school vouchers, retirement system overhaul and oilfield pollution lawsuits.

With all that in the hopper, "Where’s the time for higher education?" asks Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, who chairs the House Education Committee, where bills dealing with colleges will go to die.

That would come as a major disappointment to a group of citizens in northwest Louisiana, who are pushing to merge LSU Shreveport into Louisiana Tech within the University of Louisiana System. They are inspired by the University of New Orleans’ breakaway from LSU last year, which the Legislature consented to after a wrenching, failed attempt by Jindal to merge UNO with Southern University at New Orleans.

While the UNO-SUNO merger plan polarized the New Orleans area, the proposed union of Tech and LSUS is being driven by broad local support from Shreveport to Ruston.

The Shreveport community long has been frustrated by the college’s shortcomings in degree programs and economic development impact. For Louisiana Tech, a merger is very desirable in terms of prestige, enrollment and real estate.

The Board of Regents has blessed the idea and a bill has been filed to achieve it. Legislators generally are of open minds, but with many consolidation details to resolve and consequences to foresee, and the required two-thirds approval, they might rather study the issue for a year.

Understandingly, LSU System officials in Baton Rouge strongly oppose the merger. They blame Regents for blocking attempts to improve course offerings in Shreveport in order to protect Tech’s primacy in the region, which Regents officials deny.

The deeper problem for LSU, however, is the clash within itself. Some strong supporters of the school, even some officials, believe the LSU system has grown too big to manage a major university. Its empire includes the main campus, a law school, two medical schools, an agricultural center, a biomedical research institute, four-year campuses in Shreveport and Alexandria, a two-year junior college in Eunice and, oh yes, ten public hospitals, whose vexing management and funding issues often consume meetings of the LSU Board of Supervisors.

A group called the Flagship Agenda, comprised of major LSU supporters, has devised a new organizational chart similar to those of major universities in other states, which puts the main campus, law school, med schools and research centers under the management of a combined president-chancellor, and separate from the system’s control of the satellite campuses and the hospitals.

The LSU Board of Supervisors would still oversee all entities, but the new set-up would resolve the inevitable dysfunctional relationship between the system president and main campus chancellor.

The beauty of the plan is that it can be approved in one board meeting, without a vote of the Legislature or signature of the governor, though, realistically, it would need their tacit approval.

The idea had legs for a while, but faltered in part over what to do with President John Lombardi and Chancellor Michael Martin. But with both their contracts expiring within the year, that point could soon be moot.

Reorganization is dormant for now, but it could be revisited in the fall. LSU taking the lead to re-order its own house would open the discussion of dealing with the other campuses, including the LSUS-Tech merger.

Off and on for decades the Legislature has pursued in vain the Holy Grail of a single board for higher education. The better solution might come from the bottom up, from institutions and regions striking new productive alliances across system lines. While final decisions would be made at the State Capitol, the deep thinking best take place elsewhere.