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Regents must take holistic view in evaluating study

Next week, the Louisiana Board of Regents will undertake a review of a recent report issued concerning possible scenarios dealing with my institution, Louisiana State University Shreveport. It members would do wise to look at the question in a holistic manner, rather than an insular view of what would serve individual campuses.

The report, while encouraged by local leaders and the Board, was resisted by the Louisiana State University System. Its primary recommendation was to merge LSUS with Louisiana Tech, creating two equal campuses in one system, with LSUS administration subsumed into Tech’s and the University of Louisiana System.  It secondarily recommended separate institutions but LSUS transferring into the UL System.

At the micro-level, the conclusions make sense, and provide a reasonable path for improving higher education access in the state’s third-largest metropolitan area. It would be good for both institutions. Unfortunately, at the macro-level, its recommendations do not make sense, relegating larger questions about statewide delivery of higher education and, with the merger concept, ignore the fundamental question about whether clients and taxpayers are getting their money’s worth from what is spent on higher education, and whether this is the best tactic for improving provision of higher education statewide.

The primary problem with the merger idea is that it further locks into place an overbuilt system consequently poorly arranged geographically. As noted previously, it is odd to have two institutions in the same system with partially overlapping offerings within a few miles of each other (LSUS and the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center Shreveport), with three other schools out of the metropolitan area also offering there and with some duplicative programs. Add to that two of those outsiders are within 30 miles of each other 70 to 100 miles away (Tech and the University of Louisiana Monroe), while one of them also is 5 miles from another completely separate campus (Grambling State University).

If consolidations are to be implemented in order to save money that then will allow its commitment to strengthening remaining institutions, it makes more sense to put the Shreveport institutions together and the Ruston-Grambling-Monroe institutions in some pairing or even all three combined. (Adding to the Shreveport combination could be the merger of Northwestern State University, which has forged close links to the main community college in the area, Bossier Parish Community College.) But by an LSUS-Tech combination, it essentially negates this possibility by pursuing the least efficient combination method with perhaps the most short-term costs, embedding that to work around future consolidation scenarios – if any at all could be pursued after this.

This primary conclusion also has tinged about it an air of unrealism. Setting aside political difficulties involved, it proposes central administration to be carried out in Ruston. No doubt things would be much easier if we could just pick up the Tech campus and plop it next to LSUS’, but we can’t, and what must be understood is that the administrative and logistical center of an institution designed to serve a metropolitan area must be in that metropolitan area. Governance located in an area one-tenth the population of its other component cannot as effectively serve that larger area.

Therefore, the second recommendation fits better with the actual state of higher education in Louisiana. The report describes well the advantages and disadvantages of differing system memberships, with all of the history and current attitudes involved, and draws the proper conclusion that UL membership would assist LSUS better in strengthening higher education capacity in the Shreveport-Bossier area. This also leaves more tractable the ability at the state level to deal with the over/maldistributed capacity problem in higher education, with the former noted above. As an example of the latter, the report identifies Tech graduating through its Shreveport-Bossier programs over the past few years several hundred students with majors and degrees currently being offered by LSUS, while noting space is starting to get squeezed in Ruston but slack remains at LSUS. Why not simply forbid Tech to offer these duplicative programs and have students interested in them go a few miles down the road to get them?

Again, the merger idea would be beneficial for the two institutions and for the provision of higher education in the Shreveport metropolitan area. But the same benefits can occur with strategic reallocations at the state level, driven by additional dollars generated more efficiently used, by restructuring at the state level. That task becomes more difficult if the merger idea is implemented. The Regents need to keep that in mind as they review the effort.

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