SUNO/UNO and a single board face the fire.

Taken strictly from a financial point of view, merging Southern University at New Orleans and the University of New Orleans is logical. A merger would mean only one chancellor and fewer faculty and staff to pay. The problem is, it was illogical in 1959 to establish SUNO practically down the street from UNO in the first place. But at that time, legislators were more concerned about separating the races than the fiscal consequences of such an action. They figured their constituents wouldn’t care if they “wasted” some of their money to keep black people out of their white university.

Yes, times have changed. The U.S. Supreme Court’s convoluted “separate but equal” provision never really held water in a country purporting to be the world’s moral leader, and different Supreme Court justices in a different era decided that the time had come for schools to racially integrate. That ruling came too late to save Louisiana taxpayers the millions, if not billions, of dollars that have been spent on what is now the only predominately black university system in the country.

Not that anyone is advocating dismantling Southern University’s system of colleges. That suggestion may come about some day, but even in a time of fiscal crisis, Governor Jindal’s administration has enough sense to go after only one or two sacred cows at a time. Nonetheless, if SUNO and UNO’s proximity is illogical, so is the proximity of Southern University and Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

During the height of the fray about the merger in February, one Board of Regents member was reported to have raised the rhetorical question of why New Orleans needs two university libraries and two cafeterias so close to each other. Good question, but if it’s raised about SUNO and UNO, it also must be asked about Southern University and Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and about Grambling University and Louisiana Tech University in Ruston.

Another problem is that the word “merger” is a misnomer. “Merging” SUNO and UNO really means, for all practical purposes, closing SUNO. Its students are different than UNO’s students, a fact that was raised by a 2006 study that recommended against merging the two campuses. Many of the first-time freshmen who go to SUNO wouldn’t meet UNO’s tougher entrance requirements. While it’s true that those students could easily attend Delgado Community College or Nunez Community College for two years and then transfer to UNO, the end result would be the same: Potential SUNO students would be denied the experience that takes them there in the first place.

Most SUNO students come from majority black secondary schools and those who are first-generation college students often feel safer in a similar post-secondary environment. Arguing that such an experience doesn’t prepare them for a racially integrated workplace doesn’t change the fact that many feel overwhelmed in larger and more impersonal universities such as UNO.

Proponents of the merger say that the state can’t afford such special accommodations anymore. However, the “poor us” argument isn’t being equally applied.

Gov. Jindal’s administration, for example, opposes reducing or freezing the expense of TOPS scholarships, a program that pays the tuition of students who take a college preparation curriculum in high school, maintain a C average and score at least 20, of a possible 36, on the American College Test. Naturally such generosity brings many takers, and the program’s cost has swelled to about $190 million with a large portion of it benefiting families with incomes of $100,000 or more.

Critics describe the program as a give-away to mostly white middle and upper-middle class families. They also say that a state facing a $1.6 billion budget shortfall can ill afford to continue paying the full cost of the college tuition of thousands of students, especially for those whose parents can afford to pay their own way. Supporters of the program say TOPS brings better-prepared students into the college system and must be saved at all costs.

TOPS’ popularity with the group of people who tend to vote the most often preclude an outright elimination, but reducing the amount of the financial benefit to each student would save a good deal more money over time than merging SUNO and UNO.

The other proposed money-saver to be considered by the legislature this year is the best idea of all, but it has even less chance of getting adopted than a SUNO-UNO merger. Establishing a single board for higher education to replace the five management boards that exist now would eliminate the extravagant salaries doled out to the five system presidents and provide a less politically charged avenue for trimming down higher education costs.

Louisiana has too many four-year colleges and universities for its size, but the legislature has historically shown a preference for adding rather than subtracting campuses. Giving streamlining authority to a single board would take tough decisions out of the legislature’s hands.

The single-board concept is dead on arrival. It has been proposed and ignored many times because too many influential people would lose their high paying, prestigious positions. By the end of the 2011 legislative session, chances are that the tried-and-true pattern of across-the-board budgets cuts to all colleges and universities will continue until some of them simply starve to death.
 

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