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Merger study may promote efficiency over politics

Local citizen leaders from Shreveport have floated the old idea to merge my institution, Louisiana State University Shreveport, with Louisiana Tech and Louisiana State University Medical Center Shreveport. While there are as many political reasons to do this as educative ones, if done for the latter something like it could improve educational efficiency in the state.

The idea isn’t new, and its history shows the political perils. During the term of the previous LSUS chancellor in the first part of the 1990s, he brought up the idea or merging us and Tech, which essentially got him run out of his job and town. A map reveals much of the logic behind his idea: LSUMCS is just miles from LSUS, which then is 70 miles west of Tech in Ruston, which is just five miles east of Grambling State University in Grambling and 30 miles west of the University of Louisiana – Monroe in Monroe. Also, 65 miles to the southeast is Northwestern State University in Natchitoches. Why scatter all these centers of higher education across an area of population of just a half million people?

Tech seemed the likeliest candidate for a merger.
While like NSU it was situated in a bucolic area and was allowed to operate some programs in the Shreveport area, it much better complemented LSUS because of its emphasis on engineering which the Board of Regents never had let LSUS make any offerings, precisely because of Tech’s proximity, when the former was promoted to four-year status in 1976. NSU’s programs were more duplicative.

That matter of duplication might serve better as a justification for a merger in the ideal world; after all, if a large number of things are being done similarly, why divide them between two nearby locations? But in the real political world, that would be impossible because it would entail largely abandoning one campus to have any real efficiency gains and the dynamics are backwards in this instance. If a matter of moving a smaller, isolated campus to a larger, metropolitan one, it might actually happen. However, here the choice is to move to a larger, isolated campus and lose a baccalaureate campus in a heavily-populated area, or move from a long-established, large rural campus with far greater infrastructure and student programs to a smaller urban campus.

Thus, the complementary strategy makes more practical sense, because a division of labor could be established more easily between Tech and LSUS. Tech could send its business school over to LSUS, which itself could trade out some of its liberal arts programs (keeping those like arts and journalism, which make more sense operating out of a larger metropolitan area), and the schools largely could be made into centers of different expertise.

What issue never really got addressed then and today might constitute the biggest deal breaker between the two was the administrative structure. Even though Tech is larger, has been around longer, and has the infrastructure to offer more in the way of student programs, it would just make much more sense to base the administrative structure in Shreveport with 12 times the population base of Ruston. This would mean folding Tech’s administrative structure into LSUS’ and thereby favor the latter’s. It’s a notion Tech administrators, as well as its far larger alumni base than LSUS’, never would agree to willingly.

But throwing in LSUMCS into the equation shifts the dynamics considerably. It already has connections with LSUS in science and medical training and its existence lays bare perhaps the most duplicative educational situation of all: here we have an institution granting bachelors, masters, and doctoral (both in philosophy and medicine) degrees in many areas of science and medicine – except in nursing, because NSU grabbed that long ago, and radiologic sciences, which NSU got later.

This would follow well the complementary strategy where graduate medical education would comprise its own college within LSUS. Faculty sizes are pretty similar although the LSUMCS budget is exponentially higher than LSUS’, and the academic governance structures are so different as to have little overlap, meaning not much eliminating duplication, but the real savings could come from combining other areas performing organizational maintenance (personnel, purchasing, security, etc.).

And this might lead to a better choice of a university to merge with outside of the area. Although Tech has joint programs with both LSUS and LSUMCS, NSU seems the better choice. Its School of Nursing and Allied Health could be collapsed into LSUMCS and its business and education studies (it started as a school for teachers, but it makes much more sense to have that occur in a far larger marketplace for teachers) shipped to LSUS, while LSUS would retain its science, business, and education programs but send most of the rest to NSU. This would leave the Shreveport area and those two campuses largely educating in the areas of medicine, science, education, and business, while Natchitoches would be the headquarters for most other areas of study. Each of NSU and LSUS would provide classes in the state’s General Education Requirements, but besides those only in the areas in which they end up specializing. Governance, logically, would occur in Shreveport but, again, the biggest roadblock to a deal probably would be the deemphasizing the NSU administrative apparatus.

This kind of organization could provide substantial savings, and a similar plan combining the forces of Tech, GSU, and ULM could do the same. Naturally, political obstacles make this nearly impossible. The politics behind the group getting the study together in Shreveport has its plusses and minuses. Part of its motivation appears to be that a merger with LSUMCS would generate more business for the semi-bust that is Shreveport’s Biomedical Research Foundation, paid for by taxpayer dollars that never has come close to living up to the claims its backers made when they got the public to subsidize it a quarter-century ago, and it caters to the decades-old ambition of Tech to claim the Shreveport market as its own.

At the same time, LSU System Pres. John Lombardi seems fearful that this would diminish the LSU System either by removing LSUS and/or LSUMCS from the system (already having lost the University of New Orleans recently) or, more likely, paring the number of institutions by one and creating a bigger competitor to the LSU Baton Rouge campus (whose interests dominate on the LSU Board of Supervisors). For that reason, he has advised LSUS and LSUMCS not to cooperate with this particular study.

His problem is he and the Board still must answer to the Regents, who, for the first time in a long time, have a commissioner of higher education, Jim Purcell, who has spent most of his academic career outside of the state and has little vested interest in the internal, multi-system politics of Louisiana higher education. That provides hope that the merger issue regarding North Louisiana institutions has given way from being toxic to all parties to getting serious study and appropriate action with resource efficiency rather than politics of primary consideration.

1 comment:

Sid said...

The whole higher education board system is quite confusing. The politics that surround our universities is quite disappointing. rather than talking about merging Tech with LSUS or UNO with SUNO, etc. wew need to get the politics out of higher education(fat chance) and do what's best for the people of the state. I would hate to see Tech merged into the LSU system and I can't see LSU letting go of any of their empire, regardless of how much sense it should make. We need a comprehensive plan not a band aid fix. LSU will never let that happen.