Recently there was a fundraiser cocktail party to honor the University of New Orleans’ latest selection as Alumnus of the Year. The pick, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, had, as is customary, been selected by previous winners of the award.
Normand was a popular choice. (As one former winner told him, “I live in New Orleans, so this was my first chance to vote for you.”)
As a high-profile public official it was hoped that he, like other winners, could be an example of the quality of the university’s alumni. (The previous year’s winner was federal judge Jay Zainey; also in the number was former U.S. attorney Jim Letten.) Still, despite the pride of accomplishment, there remains a sense of gloom when the topic is UNO.
Once an example, as fresh as a lake breeze, of a thriving urban university, UNO has been hit hard by budget cuts, population shifts and competition from area universities. Through its history it has been a good school, but one too often devoid of the college life that’s attractive to students with means. As a commuter college it served those who worked while getting an education. The most common praise about the university is that it gave New Orleans a middle class. There is truth to that. Until what was originally known as LSUNO opened in 1959, students had to leave town or afford a private university to get higher-level education. Many were denied the opportunity. By providing quality and inexpensive education, a middle class began to emerge. (Nearby, Southern University in New Orleans was created to do the same for black students, though from the very beginning UNO was integrated and has in recent years had a higher black student enrollment than SUNO.)
For most of its existence UNO’s supporters have complained that the university was an overlooked stepchild of the parent LSU system. In 2011, UNO became part of the University of Louisiana system where it was thought it would be more of an equal player. While it’s still too early to tell the impact of that change, UNO has faced enough hardships to drop behind in anyone’s system.
A faculty committee has been studying possible restructuring and elimination of some programs. The university is doing what it has to do to face a harsh reality. There are notable growth areas, particularly in tourism-related areas and movie production; on the other side some education programs and upper level political science seem destined for the axe.
Somehow, some way, UNO needs more support, not only from alumni and government but also from groups that recognize the importance of a public urban university. We know many stories of the impact that the university has had on lives including (full disclosure) our own.
Here is an idea: Let’s make UNO a cause for the tricentennial. The university already has a distinguished reputation in history, including being the primogenitor for the World War II Museum, now let’s use history to help save the university.
What a tribute it would be to one day say that New Orleans celebrated its tricentennial by making its middle class even bigger and stronger.