Evident in the Louisiana Legislature’s questioning of higher education during this special session is their outrage (at least among several Republican members) over two things:
- That higher education had the gall to let the public know that the 13th cut in 8 years in order to help fill a $3 billion dollar hole now threaten the third and fourth rails of Louisiana politics: TOPS and LSU football (sorry, these are public funds and public institutions so the public has the right to know);
- That higher education hasn’t yet closed, merged or privatized institutions after all these cuts.
Leading this charge is Sen. Conrad Appel III (R-Metairie), chair of the Senate Education committee. In his latest shot, in a letter sent to the Board of Regents on January 31–which by sheer coincidence didn’t get picked up by the Advocate until two days after the special session commenced and several days after the TOPS Crisis got legislators’ phones-a-ringing–he accused Higher Education Commissioner Joseph Rallo and the Board of Regents of “circling the wagons” and resisting change.
The document that elicited this response was the Regents’ response to Appel’s own Senate Resolution 132 from the 2015 legislative session, in which it was charged to “re-examine the state’s public postsecondary delivery system” in order to “make optimal use of resources.” SR 132 appeared on the surface to ask Regents to re-examine and revise the 2011 Master Plan, which is a ten-year plan that was last revised in 2012. Anyone who has been involved in master planning knows that they are meant to be long-range visionary plans rather than short-term goals and objectives that change frequently. But embedded in SR 132 was a reminder to Regents of its constitutional responsibilities, which outlined the true purpose of the resolution, and what Sen. Appel was expecting to see in its response–revisions to the Master Plan, along with a proposal to merge/close institutions. He first charged Regents to “look beyond traditional parochial considerations,” and quoted the Regents’ constitutional duties, including revising and eliminating degree programs, studying the feasilbility of merging and transferring institutions, and making “timely” revisions to the master plan. It concludes by insinuating that the Board of Regents’ primary constitutional responsibility is to restructure public higher education:
WHEREAS, it is incumbent upon the Board of Regents to exercise its constitutional responsibility and re-examine the state’s public postsecondary education delivery system from a statewide perspective and determine the best manner in which to provide a coordinated statewide… delivery system that provides for the proper role, scope, and mission of each…institution and its placement within the… structure, focuses resources, and establishes an optimal balance of technical colleges, two-year and four-year institutions, and courses of study (emphasis mine).
In other words, revise that Master Plan now, even though you’re only 3 years into a 10-year plan, and make sure you include a plan to merge or close some universities.
A fishing expedition from the same legislator who carried Bobby Jindal’s ill-fated UNO/SUNO merger plan, and who based on his questioning over the last three days, seems still visibly upset that no university mergers happened during the eight years of hacking and slashing higher ed took during the Jindal administration.
This is also the same legislator who, in helping to launch Jump Start, said we were going from a 60%/40% four-year to two-year split (which is the national average) to 40%/60%–which, if true, would be far below other states. He also claimed that we have been pushing “college” too much in this state to students who don’t want to go to college.
While I support more robust career and technical education as well as our community colleges in general–which according to Dr. Monty Sullivan do not compete directly with our universities–Sen. Appel’s numbers seem more reflective of a desire to close or merge universities and send students to (cheaper) community colleges. As I’ve reported here before, Louisiana’s four-year/two-year split is actually 65%/35%, despite the fact that more students are graduating with the college-prep core curriculum. And according to the 2015 ACT State Profile Report, 71% of the 2015 high school graduating class aspire to a bachelor’s degree or higher. This means that more students aspire to a four-year degree than are currently going to our four-year universities. I’ve written a lot on why so I won’t go into that here… but poke around my four-part series on GRAD Act if you are interested.
Full disclosure–I support community colleges. I have worked in the LCTCS system. I am a product of a community college.
The Board of Regents complied with the resolution but not apparently with Sen. Appel’s expectations. Their response was, in essence, OK, we are revisiting the Master Plan like you asked us to, convened a Stakeholder Collaborative to ensure that it is in alignment with state workforce and economic development needs, and it will be considered for approval by the complete Board this spring. We can assume that the new Master Plan will include the “five bold plans” Regents Chair Richard Lipsey talked about in his legislative testimony, and perhaps they will involve reorganizing Louisiana public higher education.
But that wasn’t good enough for Sen. Appel. He went on another fishing expedition for the mergers Bobby Jindal didn’t get, and still didn’t get them. Study after study have NOT supported Louisiana university mergers. Georgia’s mergers (which came up in testimony as a great and wonderful example of reorganizing higher education) did not save money. Connecticut’s community college and university mergers did not save money. New Jersey’s mergers did not save money. Mergers in general in fact tend to cost money.
I’m not saying that mergers are bad or that our higher education system is perfect and wouldn’t benefit from them. Mergers between similar institutions with similar missions and student populations can work. But do them because they are the right thing to do to improve education and student outcomes, not because they will save money. And certainly don’t do it under the budget gun, because who will lose? Students.
Postscript: Higher Education Commissioner Rallo’s track record prior to coming to Louisiana appears to be one of a higher education reformer who is quite familiar with campus reorganizations–further evidence that Sen. Appel’s chastisement of him as supporting the status quo is off mark. Here’s an article from 2011 about Angelo State University’s reorganization under Dr. Rallo’s leadership in the face of Texas’s higher ed budget cuts while he was their chancellor. Note that many if not most of our institutions have been similarly reorganized to the tune of hundreds of programs closed or discontinued, and 5,0oo fewer employees on our payrolls.