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Loyalist sacrifices spot to preserve Jindal reforms

As noted previously, when Gov. Bobby Jindal wants to win a public policy battle, he won’t let public perception get in the way of achieving that objective. Yesterday, one of his soldiers fell on his sword in an awkward way to increase his chances of winning a big one.

Roland Toups, longest serving member of the Louisiana Board of Regents and a Jindal appointee since 2009, resigned at Jindal’s request. The Regents soon will consider study results, prompted by Jindal, to merge Southern University New Orleans and the University of New Orleans and transfer both into (for now) the University of Louisiana System, a contemplated decision guaranteed to rile every higher education elite in the state except those backing UNO and the ULS.

Distracting from the sensible choice to proceed has been a suit filed by the politically-reemerging Cleo Fields, who creatively suggested the lack of any minority representation and disproportionately low female representation on the Board was unconstitutional. While bad jurisprudence, it’s good publicity for merger opponents and, unfortunately, other events got Toups put into a position that made his continued service untenable.

Specifically, the company he heads, Turner Industries, a year ago got criticized in an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report that determined that black workers at the plant faced racial harassment and discrimination. The EEOC also concluded that black workers were denied promotions and disciplined more harshly than whites, and that managers retaliated against workers who complained. As the report encouraged, Turner Industries settled over that.

This has lent credibility to a lawsuit filed earlier this year by other black former and current employees charging discrimination and harassment, although Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Toups has argued most claims are discredited or has denied them. No doubt he had nothing to do with any alleged illegal treatment but as the guy at the top, the buck stops with him.

Unfortunately for him, this would make made his position untenable on the Board, especially as only the next day Jindal announced support for an idea that effectively would end the Southern University System. With so many defenders of SUNO as a separate institution, plus with Jindal’s broader initiative to combine all separate university/college systems into one, now hinting disingenuously that racial motives lay behind the proposal by the state’s ethnically South Asian Indian governor, Toups’ position became precarious – which never may have been an issue had Jindal not made these proposals whose opponents insisted on infusing with racial content. (An open question is whether, after Jindal’s initial request to study the SUNO/UNO merger, there was not interest group coordination to get the suit filed in east Texas followed on by Fields’ suit.)

One gets the sense that when Fields found some willing parties to lend themselves to his suit and launched it, it surprised the Jindal Administration whose boss typically thinks in color-blind terms. In the three weeks since, likely it resolved to nip the controversy in the bud from hampering its consolidation agenda by concluding Toups’ continued service in light of the initiative now was a political liability, identifying a suitable ethnic minority supporter who would be loyal unquestionably to Jindal (if black, a difficult and lengthy task given the vast majority of Louisiana black political elites deeply resent Jindal for his demonstration that an ethnic minority can be a successful elected conservative Republican), and then getting Toups’ acquiescence for his departure in order to appoint, after a decent interval, the new face before the necessity for decisions to be made on the initiative.

The neat solution removes the presumed problem on the Board and undercuts the lack of diversity on it argument all at once. This seems obvious but for all involved to admit so is too crass. Yes, the attentive public will figure this out but Jindal would rather win this one than care about the unease at asking a loyalist (who put $10,500 of his own money up for and whose company added $20,000 to various Jindal electoral campaigns) to take one for the team or by having to pander to the likes of a hustler like Fields, and it all be on display.

But, a fact which probably particularly discomfits the technocratic and ideas-driven Jindal, politics makes you do things you don’t want to do. Which here also applies to Toups, who volunteered absence on the Board therefore may end up doing more for needed higher education governance reform than his being on it.

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