Higher education officials' resistance to change makes financial plight worse, Louisiana legislator says _lowres

Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- State Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie.

An influential state senator says higher education leaders bear partial responsibility for their own financial plights in recent years, because of what he perceives as a resistance to change.

In a sharply worded letter to Higher Education Commissioner Joseph Rallo, Sen. Conrad Appel calls for the Board of Regents to implement “a strong plan of organization reform.”

The Metairie Republican said the Board of Regents is maintaining the “status quo,” and he fears that student interests are being put second to “what is best for those operating within the individual institutions or systems.”

As the former chairman of the Senate Education Committee — he is now on the Senate finance panel — Appel led efforts to revamp higher education. The comments in Appel’s letter are being echoed by some GOP legislators.

In the opening few days of the special legislative session to close a massive midyear shortfall of about $900 million for the fiscal year that ends June 30, Appel is continuing the dialogue calling for structural higher education changes with leaders of colleges and universities.

Higher education is facing, at best, a $70 million cut and, at worst, more than $200 million in cuts for the four remaining months of the school year. The deficit could be even steeper for the next fiscal year, which is starting out more than $2 billion in the hole.

“The higher education community justifiably demands more support, but at the same time, it fails to realize that it has a fiduciary responsibility to not just ‘circle the wagons’ in order to defend what no one honestly believes is an efficient or effective system,” Appel wrote in the letter dated Jan. 31.

Appel also cautioned that if the Board of Regents fails to develop and implement a plan for reform, it could lose support for requests for more financial support.

Rallo, in an interview, responded that higher education leaders are constantly reviewing programs, trying to eliminate unnecessary duplication of services and eliminating programs with low completion rates in order to be as efficient as possible.

But he pointed out that any meaningful reform is in the hands of the state Legislature. He noted a proposal to merge Southern University at New Orleans and the University of New Orleans was killed by the Legislature in 2011.

“We’ve laid out all sorts of ideas with respect to consolidation and merges and sadly were unable to go forward with them,” Rallo said. “The legislative process stood in the way.”

He also said the Legislature still maintains control of tuition increases over 10 percent, whereas most states give tuition authority to the individual institutions.

“We have to honor the legislative desire to maintain its hand in higher education,” he said.

Responding to criticism about not being efficient, he said higher education has lost 5,000 positions over the past five years, which makes it “leaner from a business perspective.”

The Board of Regents also is revising is 2011 master plan, the foundation of its policies and framework, which is expected to be adopted in the coming months. The changes will address many of the issues raised by Appel, Rallo said.

Last year, the Legislature passed a resolution, sponsored by Appel, calling for the Board of Regents to re-examine the higher education system and make recommendations about streamlining and making the systems more efficient.

Appel said in his letter that the Board of Regents’ response was merely a defense of the current system “that seemingly seeks to justify the existence and function of every institution as presently constituted.”

Moving forward, Appel said in an interview that his approach is to deal with the immediate shortfall for this fiscal year by supporting the governor’s emergency tax increase proposals and budget cuts to ensure higher education can continue to operate for the remainder of the year.

But for the regular session, which will kick off March 14, Appel said he will pursue some greater structural reforms, including strengthening articulation agreements between two-year and four-year schools to improve the ability of transferring credits.

He’s frustrated by what he considers the duplication of some services, but recalling the “war” that erupted from the proposal to merge SUNO and UNO, he said he wouldn’t be pursuing school closures.

“The Regents need to step up and take the bull by the horns,” he said. “We have places where there’s a (community college) right next to a university. Why?”

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen.