Gov. Bobby Jindal swept past concerns that he paid insufficient attention to the funding of Louisiana higher education by proposing changes not only along his customary attention to bureaucratic details, but also by a bold calling to streamline its governance to set the stage for improved institutional performance and better use of taxpayer dollars.
Addressing an audience comprised of the members of the present five higher education governance boards, perhaps they and their staffers may be the only ones not cheered by Jindal’s proposals, all of which will need legislative approval with the biggest requiring amending the Constitution. That’s because the most radical of the bunch, building upon his apparent desire to merge the University of New Orleans and Southern University New Orleans, was to have only one higher education governance board.
Sometimes criticized for his lack of boldness, Jindal likely recognized conditions probably could get little better to swing for the fences on this issue. While indicating he would not reduce current institution budgets more than 10 percent and said it likely would be significantly less, the fact that the state faces a tough fiscal climate for at least the upcoming year and higher education dollars depend so much on state general fund revenues means savings are eagerly sought, with board parings likely to count in the tens of millions of dollars.
This initiative also neatly dovetails into the UNO/SUNO merger hopes. Jindal originally argued if it came off to move the institution into a governing system which neither presently was in. But by dispensing with separate systems entirely – Jindal appears to favor that a single board group for planning and policy purposes institutions into common categories such as flagship (Louisiana State University Baton Rouge), comprehensive, regional, community, and technical – Jindal makes more likely this possibility by knocking down these artificial walls. Further, it diminishes the arguments of some that this particular merger proposal unfairly targets the historically-black Southern University System. In the longer term, a single board could grease the skids for future mergers and consolidations by removing system turf wars as a consideration.
Making the move even more propitious, the position of commissioner of higher education remains vacant after legislators vetoed an attempt to fill it over concerns about salary. Because of the amending necessity meaning the change could not occur realistically prior to fiscal year 2012-13, the state could limp along without the job being filled until the July after next, while recruiting somebody after the fall (once the amendment passed) for the job with its new responsibilities under the change. This might placate the heads of the four systems, as one of them might step into that role, who together doubtlessly will provide at best no opposition, at worst major criticism, of the plan because they will lose their jobs.
That idea goes even beyond what was recommended in this space, and some of the other ideas Jindal signaled would find their way into legislation for this year’s regular legislative session that would increase efficiency in spending echo many that also have appeared in this space, including
· Charging tuition for 13-15 semester hours taken in removing the cap for 12, which will slightly boost revenues but, more importantly, prevent students from loading up on hours without cost with the intention of dropping the ones representing their weakest performing classes, thus wasting school resources and potentially shutting out other students from taking classes that could speed their graduation rates
· Tougher course dropping policies, such as making them do so earlier in the semester, also to prevent inefficient resource allocation
· Incentives to raise admission standards for the baccalaureate-and-up institutions, to better match actual student abilities and motivations to campuses of study, speeding up graduation and reducing dropout rates
· Modifying financial policies to wipe away perverse incentives, such as the mad dash at the end of fiscal years I’ve so often seen to spend budgets to zero because state dollars can’t be rolled over into the next year
· Making funding more contingent on outputs rather than inputs (for example, graduation rates emphasized rather than enrollment numbers) and more transparent and understandable, including more comprehensive metrics that get better at performance measures (such as increasing the prominence of percentage of degrees earned of enrollment at the expense of the graduation rate of the first-time, full-time freshman entering in the fall semester cohort)
· Others that are removing unjustified differential tuition rates among technical schools by increases to those artificially low, loosening bureaucratic paperwork requirements over positions, indexing operational fees, better use of data and technology through tracking, and giving institutions more authority over capital outlay
No, there was no talk of LSUBR going private, nor TOPS being made less an entitlement and more a scholarship program, nor other consolidations and mergers besides that of programs initiated by the Board of Regents last week, nor removing distractions from the system such as the charity hospital system. Left unaddressed as well was the issue of incentives to prevent schools from trying to game the new rules; i.e., encouraging faculty members to lower standards in order to pump up graduation rates, for example. But, together, these items constitute boldness, especially from the usually-cautious Jindal.
And, given the budget situation, looming elections, and overall willingness to approve of mild changes last year, the Legislature looks poised to give Jindal most of what he wants, especially as there appears to be considerable elite and perhaps public support for these kinds of efforts. Jindal mentioned one organization at the forefront which has articulated many of these ideas, and perhaps not coincidentally, at about the time Jindal spoke of this another group sent around a note doing the same.
Getting the amendment into the hands of the voter will prove the most difficult, as vested interests in the maintenance of separate university systems, both from within them and their legislative allies, might be able to muster the supermajority in either chamber of the Legislature to necessary to deny Jindal. Yet you can’t win if you don’t play, and Jindal’s willingness to spend political capital on this shows commitment, belies a budding reputation of temerity to safeguard future political ambitions, and may be decisive in fomenting these long overdue reforms.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 15:00