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UNO and SUNO

Learning from North Carolina

Jason Raish illustration

It is time for the University of New Orleans and Southern University of New Orleans to join hands and dance in the sunrise together.

It is also past time for the state to restructure higher education into a more cost effective model that eliminates unnecessary salaries at the top, so that faculty can focus on providing a quality education. Hand wringing wastes energy.

Anyone who has been awake knows that the state’s public colleges are facing another reduction in state funding on top of the $700 million that Louisiana Board of Regents figures show has been cut since 2008. According to many news outlets, Gov. Jindal’s proposed budget for the 2015-’16 fiscal year is a rob Peter-to-pay-Paul plan that – if followed by the Legislature – would mean colleges would take at least another $200 million hit.

That figure halves previous estimates, but don’t be fooled, it isn’t good news. That number doubles the decrease colleges absorbed on average for each of the previous six years.

As usual, legislators float numerous ideas to offset the reduction in ways that don’t require downsizing schools with falling enrollment – especially those in their own districts. Those ideas include passing along the cost to students in one way or the other. State tuition has been below average for the region for decades, so raising tuition is a no-brainer. On the other hand, reality is much more complicated than that.

The fact is most taxpayers are no longer willing to pay for an inefficient system of higher education, and the state’s politicians are unwilling to do what should have been done ages ago to fix the central problem: governance. There are too many chiefs in today’s structure, and they’re earning beaucoup money at the expense of the average taxpayer’s below average salary.

There are four systems of higher education, and each pays an executive administrator between $600,000 and $374,000 annually. Those salaries add up to millions over time and don’t even take into consideration extravagantly paid assistants. According to the state’s web site Sunshine.org, where all state employee salaries are listed, a “special assistant” at Louisiana State University earns $425,000.

Two Republican governors, Murphy Foster Jr. and Charles “Buddy” Roemer III, tried to adopt a better model and failed. Resistance came from those making all the money, along with district politicians and politically connected alumni who wanted to protect favored institutions.

Foster and Roemer proposed streamlining the governance structure to eliminate bloated administrative salaries and redundant services by establishing one “super” board of higher education with the authority to make decisions based on state needs, not on institutional egos. Reformers wanted to follow the North Carolina model, which created one of the most highly regarded systems of public higher education in the nation.

Such a structural change would allow the state to deal with the fact that Louisiana taxpayers support more universities than are necessary for the state’s population. Southern Regional Education Board figures show that Louisiana has a university for every 300,000 residents, compared to one per 600,000 in North Carolina.

In addition, many Louisiana universities are losing enrollment to community colleges. A growing number of students opt to pursue a two-year degree that promises a faster track to higher paying employment.

The Board of Regents Higher Education Fact Book shows that overall college enrollment increased by 17,000 between 2007 and ’14, which is same amount of students that community college and technical schools picked up during those years. The establishment of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System in 1999 exacerbated funding problems, but provided long-needed, advanced training to meet economic demands.

A single governing board could also deal with the UNO and SUNO redundancy on the New Orleans Lakefront. The very existence of the Southern University system, the nation’s only publicly supported, predominately black university system, is a 21st century dilemma created by late 19th century segregationist policies. The Southern tradition must be maintained for historical and fairness reasons, but the more racially diverse community colleges contribute to enrollment declines at Southern University in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

The racial issue is the most sensitive of the problems facing college funding today. UNO and SUNO, four-year universities located within a few blocks of each other, are still predominately white and black schools. UNO’s student body is 85 percent white, and SUNO’s student body is 85 percent black, with only 2.7 percent of its students listing themselves as white, 2013 Board of Regents statistics show.

This kind of voluntary racial segregation is a troubling aspect of contemporary America that should not be furthered by contemporary government policy. A merger of the two campuses is financially logical but rife with political problems that derail it every time it’s brought up for discussion. The white establishment didn’t care about redundant expenses when it established the Southern system to separate the races, so critics of a merger raise understandable cries of foul play. Fears that SUNO would get short-changed in a merger are justified, but the same political considerations that have protected Southern so far also would also protect SUNO in a merger.

The 2011 merger proposal caved for good reasons, all of which were outlined in this space in April of that year. However, as difficult as such a change would be for the two institutions, enrollment shifts and financial reality demand adjustments. If these realities are not faced now, more painful solutions could be forced on them later.

 

 

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