Joe Rallo has been a Navy intelligence officer, an Air Force colonel, an adviser on European Union-United States relations, and a college professor and administrator.
He has degrees in international relations and Russian history as well as a law degree, and he speaks French and Italian.
This week, the New York native is taking on his latest role: Louisiana higher education commissioner, a position that will have him overseeing the systems that lead the state’s two-year and four-year colleges and universities.
Rallo, 65, says this is where he wants to be in life — a natural progression of the experience he has built through a complex background.
“I was looking for something with policy dimensions, something that would quite frankly be interesting and fun — intellectually fun,” he said during a recent interview with The Advocate. “It’s like a big jigsaw puzzle.”
Rallo and his wife, Barbara, recently moved to Baton Rouge from Lubbock, Texas, where Rallo worked as a special adviser for global engagement at Texas Tech University. He previously held administrative roles at the Texas Tech System level, was the president of Angelo State University, was provost and vice president at Western Illinois University, and served as dean of the College of Business and Administration at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
One of the biggest issues he’ll face in Louisiana will be state funding for universities and colleges. Higher education has faced drastic budget cuts in recent years — among the steepest in the nation. Even more cuts could be looming as oil prices continue to tumble, creating a hole in the state budget.
Rallo said he knows the climate he’s stepping into.
“It’s more precipitous than anybody expected,” he said of the fallout from less oil revenue making its way to the state’s coffers.
Rallo said his goal will be to balance outcomes — graduation rates, program quality and other success indicators — with making higher education more efficient.
He noted that in the Texas Tech System, budget constraints led to a re-evaluation of some programs and pushed colleges to be more collaborative.
“I’m not going to say there’s a silver lining. I’m not naive,” Rallo said. “But at the same time, it pushes all of us at the board level to say, ‘What are the priorities? Do we have to do everything that we’re doing? Can we be more cooperative?’ ”
His philosophy and approach are clear. “Higher education has to be more agile, and higher education has to be more rigorous,” he said. “We can’t just graduate students; we have to graduate students who can compete.”
Louisiana’s higher education commissioner oversees implementation of state-level policies as well as coordination between Louisiana’s college and university systems, which total 38 institutions, a $2.6 billion budget and more than 217,000 students.
Rallo, who must be confirmed by the state Senate (typically a formality), will make $350,000 a year — a significant increase over past commissioner Jim Purcell, whose salary was $275,000. Purcell now serves as Rhode Island’s higher education commissioner after spending three years in the role in Louisiana.
Rallo has doctoral and master’s degrees from Syracuse University, a law degree from Western New England University and a bachelor’s degree from Lafayette College.
Louisiana’s Board of Regents, the appointed body that hired Rallo, has offered high praise for his accomplishments and expressed enthusiasm about his potential in the role. He was unanimously selected following a series of interviews with finalists.
In the weeks leading up to his official start, Rallo has spent time in Baton Rouge to learn more about the state’s higher education system and how it operates.
He participated in Board of Regents meetings as well as an annual update to the House and Senate’s Joint Education Committee.
During his first meeting with state lawmakers in December, Rallo — who can, at times, revert to his rapid New York cadence when he’s talking about goals and plans — came across as steady and measured. He talked a bit more slowly, emphasizing his points carefully.
Members of the Senate and House education committees had some areas of interest they wanted to draw attention to, specifically bringing up points about being efficient while maintaining quality, increasing graduation rates and addressing student loan debt.
Several offered praise for Rallo and his qualifications.
State Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, noted Rallo’s military background. “I was very excited when I read the résumé,” he said.
Rallo said his work as a Navy intelligence officer prepared him for jobs like the one he has today.
“My job really was to forecast the future,” he said. “That’s what, from my perspective, this role is about.”
He’s coming into the job with three basic goals that largely fall in line with the direction higher education has moved over the past year or so — among them pushing for more teamwork among the state’s institutions.
Louisiana’s colleges and universities are overseen by system-level governing boards and leaders of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, the LSU System, the Southern University System and the University of Louisiana System.
The systems, competing for increasingly limited funding, can sometimes be pitted against each other, but in 2014 they came together to help push the creation of the $40 million Workforce and Innovation for a Stronger Economy Fund, or WISE Fund. Rallo said his first priority is to continue that collaborative spirit among the systems.
“We will have a unified voice, publicly,” he said.
Rallo wants to revisit how resources are allocated and where changes can be made to boost morale or make the system more streamlined.
He also wants to build partnerships with the community and home in on workforce demands straight from the source by asking businesses what they need and what will make Louisiana graduates more competitive.
“I’m a firm believer in the liberal arts as the core for higher education, but at the same time, specific skills are necessary,” he said.
Every other week this month, he’ll be visiting campuses across the state and meeting with local leaders for what he calls both a “listening tour” and a “communicating tour.”
“You don’t wait until you graduate students to partner with the business community,” he said.
Rallo joked that he doesn’t have a lot of hobbies, but he does exercise every day.
He and his wife bought a house in the Preserve neighborhood that boasts a 15-acre nature preserve and live oak grove.
Barbara Rallo, a Texas native and artist who paints vibrant watercolors, was once called a “treasure” by a media outlet in San Angelo during a profile of the Angelo State first lady. The two were married in 2009.