Last year, when it was a slam dunk on the merits, the Legislature choked in helping three institutions of higher education. This year, when the evidence weighs against it, the Legislature might end up making an error of commission, with politics to blame for both mistakes.
Yesterday, the Board of Regents forwarded a recommendation to merge Louisiana State University Shreveport into Louisiana Tech University. Just last year, the Board issued a similar approval to a plan to merge the University of New Orleans with Southern University New Orleans, while forging links with the new institution with Delgado Community College. Besides the fact it meant putting institutions from different systems together, nothing else is similar between these cases
If there ever was a compelling case for a merger, as previously noted in this space, it was between UNO and SUNO. Institutions a couple of miles apart, one having a low completer rate and the other having the lowest in the country, with many duplicative programs, with the larger having the excess capacity to absorb the smaller, begged to be put together to create one strong institution. Instead, all of these merits got washed away by the politics of race and symbolism, where almost every black legislator, joined by a few others wishing to score political points on the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration that backed the move, were enough to defeat it.
The utility of the present case, also as noted previously, is far less obvious. The plan calls for housing administration with Tech, in Ruston. That automatically degrades the contribution LSUS can make to the Shreveport-Bossier metropolitan area because this arrangement, for in putting the area out of sight, out of mind, this will never allow existing and potential links to continue, form, and flourish between the school and the community. If LSUS is to serve as the regional comprehensive university, as by its mission statement and Regents declaration, it never can do so optimally so long as its administration is bound to another place, another tradition, and another set of elites. It is asinine to place control of such an institution in a population area that represents less than a tenth of the entire area to be served.
But even if this problem could be solved by housing administration at LSUS, a greater one affecting all of Louisiana higher education exists. This would lock even more firmly in place a system overbuilt with geographic maldistribution of resources. What’s the point in trying to put two schools together 70 miles apart and leaving another (Grambling) separate just five miles away? Concerning the macro-level, to come up with a contorted combination makes the system even less efficient and makes it even more difficult to undo into something much saner (such as combining LSUS and Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center – Shreveport, perhaps with Northwestern State University, and Tech with Grambling).
The inefficiency also would be felt at the micro-level, initially certainly if not perpetually. Regarding UNO and SUNO, merger costs would have been only a few million dollars and just at the beginning. They likely would be much higher in this instance. For example, Tech is the only campus to use the quarter system (because, as Tech never will admit but old academic hands in Louisiana will tell you, precisely to discourage a Tech-Grambling merger, which taking that possibility off the table is one of its main motivations it has to seeing this one through). Converting LSUS away from that will be expensive and pass some of that expense on to the rest of the state on a permanent basis, by creating a bigger outlier increasing overall conversion costs whenever a student transfers from all the other semester-based institutions to this new quarter-based one, and vice versa. As well, the extreme physical distance will provide few streamlining opportunities and unnecessary duplication also would have to be tolerated for the same reason, ultimately making any cost savings negligible, if not forfeited entirely.
Of course, unlike last year’s the justification for this is not even cost savings or streamlining but, rather, the perception LSUS would become a stronger institution. So, in the final analysis, while a merger might be better for both institutions, it also creates an even more dysfunctional system of higher education in the state that will cost more, and more to correct. As a result, Shreveport-Bossier would become the largest metropolitan area in the country without its own public baccalaureate institution of higher learning.
Yet it might be this proposal actually has a chance of going through, given the politics of the situation. What blocked the UNO-SUNO merger was generating the perception, created by those with vested interests in patronage and electoral support, that it represented an attack specifically on the Southern system and in general on blacks in Louisiana, representing some wild-eyed plot to limit black achievement. While the former argument had some merit – deserved, because of the duplicative nature of that system even though it was clear that system was in no danger of being dismantled at that time – the latter was sheer nonsense and genuinely a product of protecting certain constituencies and patronage structures to the detriment of the state as a whole.
No such dynamic exists in the present case. That many parochially-inclined elites in the metropolitan area support the idea, including the state representative within which is LSUS, Thomas Carmody, creates this overstated aura of acceptance of and willingness for the deal. Further fueling potential legislator acceptance is the desire to be seen as “doing” something about the inefficient system of higher education, which they failed to do last year. But instead of something that might actually reduce inefficiency, such as more logical mergers or system mergers that are politically more difficult to pull off, they may be tempted to take this symbolic act which in reality would have the opposite affect.
SUNO kept its low-achieving, separate identity because its legislator system graduates rallied around it to get the necessary third-plus-one voting commitment to block that attempt. But LSUS has none of its graduates in the Legislature, and LSU System graduates there never have felt any kinship to LSUS. Perhaps what may save this bad decision from going through is activation of territorial feelings. Last year, the LSUS System discovered the wages of institutional neglect when UNO slipped out of its grasp with its transfer to the University of Louisiana System as part of the fallout from the failed merger (and it helped that the Legislature had a smattering of UNO graduates, but, most importantly, both top chamber officers then were from UNO). Maybe they have learned and will see the move as a dismantling or deemphasizing of the system they may wish to protect. Otherwise, the Legislature may commit a mistake for all the wrong reasons.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 12:55