Thousands of Tigers, Cajuns, Jaguars rally at Capitol to protest proposed cuts to Louisiana higher education _lowres

Louisiana Higher Education Commissioner Joe Rallo speaks to the crowd during a 2015 rally on the steps of the State Capitol to protest possible funding cuts to higher education systems in Louisiana.

Advocate Photo by Travis Spradling

Louisiana could have a new higher education leader selected by December, as Commissioner Joe Rallo prepares to retire in June.

Rallo, who has been in the role since January 2015, formally announced his retirement plans Wednesday as the state Board of Regents had sought to extend his contract past its December date.

He has agreed to stay through June to help the next higher education commissioner navigate the state legislative process. The Legislature's next regular session is scheduled to begin March 12 and run through June 4. It's also possible that legislators will meet earlier than that in a special session to address the state's looming $1 billion-plus shortfall in the coming year.

"When I took the job here, I viewed it as a culmination of a good career," said Rallo, 67. "I feel good about what's happened. I feel good about the Board of Regents and its role of taking on more of a statewide footprint."

Board of Regents Chairman Richard Lipsey said that the board expects to name a search firm in October, with the goal of selecting a new leader in December.

"We're really looking for it to progress pretty well," Lipsey said.

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.

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.

One of his goals when Rallo entered the role was to push for more teamwork among the state’s institutions that had often found themselves pitted against each other for limited resources. Over the past three years, the system-level leaders have frequently joined Rallo in legislative committee meetings, testifying as a unified bloc.

"Obviously, not everyone in higher ed is going to have the same agenda, but we all agree on the basics and the basics are that an educated population contributes to the betterment of this state," he said. "At the end of the day, we all believe that higher education is a public good and it benefits the state – benefits in a number of ways."

Lipsey praised Rallo's work in particular with state lawmakers as being among the key qualities he has brought to the job.

"We needed a man who could come sit before the legislators and communicate with them," Lipsey said.

Rallo came to Louisiana after serving as a special adviser for global engagement at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. 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.

Over the span of his career, the New York native has been a Navy intelligence officer, an Air Force colonel, an adviser on European Union-United States relations, and a college professor and administrator.

"We never dreamed what a wonderful asset he would be to the Board of Regents," Lipsey said. "Not only was he good with numbers but, more importantly, good with people. He has represented the board very, very well."

Following public struggles with the previous commissioner, the largely governor-appointed Board of Regents set out on a months-long search that ended with the unanimous hire of Rallo in late October 2014. The board raised the commissioner's salary for the job to $350,000 and urged the new commissioner to take a more commanding role in higher education issues. His salary was later increased to $364,000 a year. It's unclear how much the next leader will make.

Higher education in Louisiana has faced drastic budget cuts in recent years — among the steepest in the nation. The state Legislature over the past two years has largely managed to stave off the cycle of deep cuts, but the threat remains and will likely be an issue for the incoming commissioner to face.

Lipsey said that the board will be looking for a new leader who can work to communicate with legislators, as well as approach the higher education budget realities.

"We all know the story — where we've been, and we all know where we are now," Lipsey said. "We're not going to be able to bring in someone who can magically wave a wand to get more money."

Rallo said that he hopes the next commissioner will have a strong higher education background.

"I think it's an exceptional opportunity for someone," he said. "At the end of the day, the commissioner of higher education is about faculty and staff and students."

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.