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25.5.11

Diluted board merger better than nothing, but still may fail

If tying Southern University New Orleans a little closer to the University of New Orleans instead of a demonstrably better merger is an eighth of a loaf when bread symbolizes good public policy, then, as currently envisioned, the creation of one governing board for higher education to replace the current five is a sixteenth of a loaf. Whether this marriage can make it out the church, unlike the other, is another matter.

HB 391 (unamended text here; as is growing more common, legislative staff are getting lazier in posting current information) by Speaker Jim Tucker would accomplish this by consolidating all governance power of higher education into a board of 13 gubernatorial appointees and one student member – looking on the surface remarkably like the existing Board of Regents with its 15 gubernatorial-appointed members and a student. But a couple of other aspects smirch the laudatory aspects of the amendment almost to the point its success would become pyrrhic.

As amended in committee, it retains the Art. VIII Sec. 5 requirement that the Legislature may close or merge institutions only through a two-thirds vote, a stricture due more to politics than to philosophy.
The concept of needing a supermajority to undertake legislative action rests on the idea that certain actions regarding the citizenry may place at such high risk the rights and property of the citizenry that only a large portion of their chosen representatives could give such assent, congruent with the idea that greater numbers reassure of the soundness of the action. For example, opening a new independent institution, because of the increased expenditures involved that would make more demands on the people’s property, meets this test of increased assent (such as being seen at present with SB 69).

But how is merging or closing campuses so potentially injurious to the people of the state as a whole? Why is it that almost every other part of the executive branch of state government not only does not need this supermajority to merge or close offices or agencies, but also does not even need legislative input? Because higher education institutions are seen by many state elected officials first as employment agencies and catchers of tax dollars and only then as places of education.

The other flaw is in the bill’s now requiring a quota system for appointees to this new board. That presently does not apply to any board and was the subject of controversy earlier this year. The stupidity of this requirement is obvious on face: quality of appointees and the ability of the governor to place like-minded individuals as is his constitutional prerogative in these positions is compromised by it.

However, these items comprise the pound of flesh required by defenders of the current inefficient system for it to have any chance at the two-thirds majority required to go in front of the voters. Similar dynamics operate here as with the SUNO-UNO merger: almost all black legislators see the disappearance of the Southern University System, like of its constituent part SUNO, as a reduction of their power to steer resources to favored special interests, and thereby would oppose that. Find a few other disaffected boosters of individual schools in their separated systems and the measure fails.

Among some of these disaffected, these modifications could seal the deal for their support thus successful passage because it makes the system potentially even less effective in carrying out the structural changes necessary to make Louisiana higher education more efficient and therefore deserving of greater taxpayer support. Keeping the supermajority requirement makes it no easier to merge institutions (the SUNO-UNO merger would have succeeded easily in all likelihood with just a majority requirement) or to close them (why is it almost every other parish needs a technical college branch in it, where a number of campuses have fewer than 1,000 students, which ends up duplicating services?). And the quota may serve to push onto the new board more defenders of specific sets of institutions that need merging or closing, making it even less likely that necessary corrective actions occur.

Still, in the long run, at least the change would save money and increase efficiency in higher education delivery. Even so, as with the SUNO-UNO merger, the initial numbers make it a dicey proposition, as the only black member present in the House Education Committee to vote for it as state Rep. Rickey Hardy, and two of the usual suspects from that previous vote who are white Democrats, state Reps. John Bel Edwards and Harold Ritchie, voted against. Which, if these results augur the same as with the fate of the merger, again demonstrates that when it comes to improving higher education in Louisiana, we have met the enemy and they are ourselves.

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