Is it ethical for Louisiana legislators to be involved in the awarding of tuition-free scholarships to Tulane University?

For many decades, Tulane has given each of the 144 state legislators the annual privilege of naming a Louisiana student as the recipient of a one-year, tuition-free scholarship to the private, prestigious university.

According to the Tulane website, tuition for an undergraduate for the 2011-2012 academic year is $38,300.

Kudos to Tulane for offering these valuable scholarships to Louisiana students.

However, the involvement of state lawmakers in the program raises conflict-of-interest questions because Tulane for decades has received millions of state dollars from several state sources including: Board of Regents payments from the 8(g) offshore settlement fund; legislative appropriations authorized by the Aid to Independent Institutions statute; legislative appropriations authorized by the TOPS scholarship program. In addition, a legislative act gives Tulane a property tax exemption on its commercial real estate in the state.

U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., a Tulane graduate, tried to end legislative involvement in the program while he was a member of the state House, but his 1996 efforts to do so were unsuccessful. The hint of a quid pro quo between state legislators and Tulane coupled with the probability that a percentage of the legislators have and will use their scholarship grants to enhance their own political careers create at least the appearance of impropriety in a state that is trying to improve its national image.

During the Jindal administration’s first year, the Legislature, with the strong support of the governor, enacted a new ethics code for public officials that was hailed by some as evidence that the days of “good-ole-boy” politics in Louisiana were over. If so, state lawmakers should do the right thing by removing themselves from the Tulane scholarship program and henceforth allow the professionals — the Tulane administrators — to select the Louisiana students from each legislative district who will receive the valuable awards.

Howard Franques