A new, 18-member state commission Friday began discussing the possibility of reorganizing the state’s higher education structure.

The legislatively mandated Governance Commission started debating in its first meeting whether any widespread change is required and whether consolidating into a single higher education board could be the answer.

The commission is the result of House Concurrent Resolution 184, approved in June as a compromise after legislation failed that would have eliminated the state’s college boards and systems and formed a merged higher education super board.

Resolution sponsor and state Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, told the commissioners that their recommendations must be fact-based and should help guide the Legislature’s actions regarding higher education in the future.

Carmody complained that politics too often drives higher education funding. He said the Legislature must give colleges more autonomy, but more accountability is needed.

“I’m not married to a single board, and I can’t say that’s the magic bullet,” Carmody said. “I’m not here to criticize the (college) systems. I’m here to learn.”

The state has the LSU System, the Southern University System, the University of Louisiana System and the Louisiana Community and Technical College System. The Louisiana Board of Regents is the higher education coordinating and oversight body.

Resolution co-sponsor and state Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, said he believes higher education “needs drastic reforms” to streamline efficiency and improve graduation and retention rates during a time of budget cuts.

“We’re not making changes fast enough, and I fear it’s going to take drastic, drastic cuts if the economy doesn’t get better,” Schroder said.

College leaders defended the schools though.

UL System President Randy Moffett noted that major improvements have been made in the past 15 years or so as the state has created a system for rapidly growing community and technical colleges, while moving away from universities not having any admission standards. The state is toughening standards more next year.

“We don’t go out and rake in every freshman like some people think we do,” Moffett said.

Commission consultant Aims McGuinness, senior associate for the Colorado-based National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, said the biggest problem often is new legislators and governors “who don’t have a clue” coming into office and wanting to make big changes to higher education.

While some changes in Louisiana seem needed, McGuinness said, major restructuring and consolidation could be problematic because there is little evidence to suggest a single board is the best model or approach.

“The cost of reorganization is extraordinary,” McGuinness said.

Jim Purcell, the state commissioner of higher education, said budget cuts have forced colleges to increase tuition in a poor state. Student loans in Louisiana now exceed $1 billion annually and continue to skyrocket in a state that offers little need-based financial aid, he said.

Purcell said more “clarity” may be needed in the existing higher education structure, especially regarding the Board of Regents’ authority, and that Louisiana too often allows for “leadership by charisma.”

The Governance Commission elected Cajundome Executive Director Greg Davis as its chairman and Lamar Advertising Company CEO Sean Reilly of Baton Rouge as the vice chairman.

Apart from considering governance and board consolidation, the commission also is tasked with studying academic programs, duplicative services and personnel, student transfer plans, college tuition levels, the state’s performance-based funding formula and more.

The wide range of goals likens the proposed commission to the Louisiana Postsecondary Education Review Commission, nicknamed PERC, and the Tucker Commission, which finished its work in February 2010.