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Whether for sake of economics or politics, merger founders

If any lesson should emanate from the failed attempt arrange union between my employer Louisiana State University Shreveport and Louisiana Tech University, it’s that a merger on these terms will not fix whatever ails higher education delivery in the Shreveport-Bossier metropolitan area.

All along, advocates argued the primary reason for the combination was to accomplish this. They described the symptoms that purported to signal deficiency in this area: relatively low enrollment numbers, almost no growth, and apparent difficulty in supplying programs. But they really couldn’t, or would not, articulate the causes of this. Instead, by having LSUS subsumed into Tech, essentially they argued that in order to cure the unknown disease the patient had to be killed and then resurrected as a symbiont.

While the idea had a great many area supporters, none of whom ever had served as a tenured faculty member or administrator in higher education, in the political and business communities in the area, as well as interest groups who assert their missions encompass education delivery, the naïveté of the notion was stunning in that so many failed to grasp its fundamental shortcoming. They appeared ignorant of a central truism in academia (and government), that institutions as organizations first and foremost do not act with a larger environmental purpose in mind – that is, to maximize higher education delivery statewide – nor to serve peripheral, specific environments – to Tech, the Shreveport/Bossier metropolitan area.

Rather, their first priority is to fulfill the needs related to what they are. In relationship to Tech, this means a satellite Tech campus in the metropolitan area always will reflect the interests of Tech’s superstructure in Ruston first, and the metropolitan area as an afterthought, no matter what efforts exist to open it up beyond that parochialism. When most of your physical assets, human capital, historical memory, and institutional culture exist in one cordoned area, decisions emanating from it concerning the satellite largely will reflect its priorities with no guarantee these will be congruent to the satellite’s, and to the benefit first of it. In other words, so long as campus governance of a combined institution is not housed in Shreveport, this kind of arrangement cannot possibly meet the area’s educational needs as well as an independent institution based in that area.

The merger idea also totally ignored the fact that an inefficient statewide higher education delivery system, overbuilt and duplicative with maldistribution of resources, would become even less efficient with a merger locking in more of that and making it less reparable. The system will improve only when some baccalaureate-and-above campuses revert to community college status and/or natural merger partners come together. In Tech’s case, that is with its neighbor a few miles distant Grambling State University and maybe the University of Louisiana in Monroe 35 miles away; for LSUS the combination would be Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center – Shreveport and maybe Northwestern State University. Leapfrogging 70 miles from Ruston to Shreveport only would create exponentially more difficult and expensive problems of coordination, program delivery, and just general overall logistics and balkanize further higher education delivery in the state.

There’s tremendous irony in here, of course, as some supporters accused LSUS of being unable to grow and others that a merger would reduce duplication, when in fact Tech has facilities in the metropolitan area where several hundred students already have matriculated with degrees duplicating what LSUS offers. Perhaps without Tech allowed to poach them, these students would be at LSUS and alleviate concerns of lack of offerings and growth.

In short, these flawed understandings that underlay the merger idea also would not lend themselves to derive solutions to jumpstart a stagnant institution that one elected official merger proponent declared would be dead in the future. Whether policy-makers recognized this and acted accordingly is another matter.

It certainly didn’t seem to be the case at first. In the House Education Committee, the bill passed 14-4, with all of the Shreveport-Bossier metropolitan area’s state representatives on the committee, Republicans Henry Burns, Thomas Carmody, and Jeff Thompson, in favor. Only one Republican opposed, and some Democrats who last year had opposed the slam dunk merger idea between the University of New Orleans and Southern University New Orleans voted for it. This boded well for the bill, which would require a two-thirds majority to succeed in both chambers of the Legislature.

But between committee and the floor, something seemed to have scared off a few Republicans, and Democrats as a whole seemed less enthusiastic for it. Whether it was the LSU System itself making loyalty appeals (about a third of House members have taken at least some coursework through the Baton Rouge campus, with the possibility that this move would initiate dismantling the system itself in favor of consolidating all campuses in that city under one governance), or perhaps the unknown costs to a state currently strapped for funds (a merger of court systems in New Orleans, which will save considerably in the long run, is about to be undone this session because of the immediate costs), even if the above arguments did not factor into the inability to raise sufficient support, nonetheless the right thing was done.

Co-sponsor Carmody announced that the system’s plan to boost LSUS growth and offerings – a combination of increased online offerings, increased imported offerings, more certificate and vocational courses, more collaboration with other local institutions, and emphasizing even more efforts in recruitment and retention of students – would become an object of legislative scrutiny. Whether the commitment plan will face the same problem of budgetary shortages and comprehensively addresses the issues that are important to growth is another matter. But the gun to the head has been uncocked, and rightfully so, for delivery of this particular bullet would not have triggered the results hoped against hope by merger supporters. Regardless of what is to come, that failure to do harm and its abnegation as a policy option for some time to come is the only certain positive outcome of this episode.


Anonymous said...

I have a question for you: were you in favor of the merger proposed to unite UNO and SUNO? If so, why? How would that have solved any problems? Or, what if the legislature had written the bill to merge SUS with Tech? What would your stance have been there?

The LSU system continuously spends money on its flagship campus in BR. Other universities under its umbrella, which once included UNO, were not always afforded resources they should have. However, does that make them any less important than the BR campus?

Higher education is an important resource to this state. It is a shame that the legislature does not take steps to protect it in the constitution, but so is its neglect of protecting healthcare. However, I would like to see the proof where the merger of LSUS and Tech would have been detrimental. As you stated in your post, even the legislators from the area were in favor. Will the LSU system now send the resources needed to make LSUS first class? Will they support the students who choose to go there? Should not all students have the resources needed to ensure their desired education?

This merger may not have been for the best. However, if I were a student of higher education in northwest Louisiana, LSUS would not even be on my radar. The reason for this is that it does not support the education path I pursued. Maybe if it were under the UL system, it would. But I guess we will never know now, will we?

Anonymous said...

Yes, he was in favor of the UNO-SUNO merger (which would have made no sense). Somehow things are different when it comes to his own university.