WANT A GOOD FIGHT?

Try reforming higher education.

ROBERT LANDRY ILLUSTRATION

Louisiana House Speaker Jim Tucker deserves a medal for bravery.

Despite what Louisiana history says about meaningful reform in higher education, Tucker took up the banner when he submitted a bill in the 2010 Legislature to create a single governing board for the state’s four-year schools. A state commission recommended the restructuring to improve performance and to save money during these times of financial crises. Even though Tucker must have known that the single board concept is a lost cause, he started rolling that stone anyway.

“It’s an uphill battle,” Tucker told a Times-Picayune reporter at the beginning of the legislative session. “But my goal is accountability and the current system is not accountable to the taxpayers, the students or to the Legislature.”

“Uphill” is an understatement.

To begin with, hardly anyone in higher education wants it – too many highly paid and powerful positions are at stake.

Tucker’s proposal would have eliminated the Louisiana Board of Regents and the management boards of the Louisiana State University System, Southern University System, and the University of Louisiana System. He wanted to replace them with a single board to govern a single system of four-year institutions.

For the state to overhaul nearly a century of bad planning is a task only an Olympian demi-god could manage.

More than one Louisiana governor couldn’t accomplish it, so if Tucker succeeds, his effort will be on par with one of Hercules’ 12 labors.

Getting it through the Legislature requires a two-thirds vote because restructuring requires a constitutional amendment. Then the voters have to approve it in a statewide election.

Fat chance.

I hope I eat crow about this prediction, because the single board, or super board, as it was called in its previous incarnations, is the best idea for higher education since the formation of the Louisiana Community & Technical College System. The super board concept has bounced around the state capital for years as one reformer or another realized that other state public university systems work more efficiently than ours.

In the mid-1980s, The Times-Picayune published a series of articles about the state’s educational deficiencies called “Cheating Our Children.” Several reporters, including me, analyzed the educational landscape for several weeks. Two recommendations came from this study of higher education: creating a community college system and restructuring the systems under one governing board. The first recommendation was accomplished, but the latter fell on its sword.

Former Gov. Buddy Roemer tried to restructure higher education in an ill-fated reform package. Even former Gov. Foster, who held a 70 percent approval rating for most of his two terms, couldn’t get a single board through the Legislature. His administration won approval for the present community college system, however, so the current proposal would result in two systems: one for four-year schools and one for community and technical colleges.
The fact of the matter is, it’s easier to create than to dismantle and reorganize. Spending money is easy; cutting back is painful. But under present conditions, cutting back is no longer an option – it’s a necessity: higher education funding has been cut $250 million since 2009 and another $280 million in federal stimulus money will dry up next year.

The single board concept is simple and logical, which is the reason it has had as many lives as Jason in the Friday the 13th franchise. As Tucker pointed out, accountability is missing in the present structure.

The most touted example of the single board concept is the highly regarded University of North Carolina higher education system, which has one board to govern 16 universities. Under the North Carolina system, chancellors are accountable to one president who makes policy according to state needs, not on the basis of the ego needs of individual campuses.

As a result, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is one of the country’s most prestigious research universities, a true flagship. Louisiana could have done the same with LSU during the oil boom years. Instead of spending the money wisely, a succession of governors and Legislatures spread the abundance around like an oil spill, giving vast amounts willy-nilly to any campus that had a powerful enough political supporter to negotiate the largess. That was the Louisiana way until the oil crash in the late 1980s put the brakes on the spending spree.

What we have now are three management boards to govern three systems of four-year institutions: Each system pays a president and staff to oversee the supervision of all the chancellors in the system. Each system operates its own fiefdom with the State Board of Regents, a coordinating board, keeping tabs on them the best it can.

Opponents say that merging the systems into one wouldn’t save as much money as proponents think because the same amount of staff would be needed to handle all the work. That is a good point, but the new system would only need one president, which would save oodles over a period of years.

Take the president of the LSU board as an example. Under the single system concept, the LSU president’s position could be eliminated and overall responsibility for LSU’s 11 institutions would transfer to the new board and its chief administrator. The present LSU president’s $600,000 salary would be saved, along with the extravagant salaries of the presidents of the other two systems.

While it’s true that the new board’s president would earn a hefty amount, he or she would be taking the place of the present Commissioner of Higher Education, the state Board of Regents’ chief administrator. That position paid more than $300,000 two years ago.

Such a change would make school chancellors accountable to one policy board and one president. As a consequence, officials could effectively manage limited resources.

All in all, the single board would be effective government. But it stands to reason that wrestling control from present higher education officials would take more political might than even a Titan like Tucker could muster. He would need the governor and two-thirds of the Legislature behind him just to get a running start.
 

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