The formation of yet another commission on the future of higher education marks another stage in the seemingly endless disputes over state colleges.
The “Governance Commission” was given a broad mandate by the Legislature to look into the many questions about higher education that have boiled over in recent years. A simple source of the controversy: not enough money.
When money is plentiful in state government, the debates about colleges and their students — how many and what kind and who’s paying what — tend to be much less salient. But with significant cuts in state support to colleges in hard budget years by Gov. Bobby Jindal and this Legislature, suddenly the questions multiply. And students and their parents are paying more in tuition and fees than before.
The commission, chaired by Lafayette civic leader Greg Davis, meets this week to hear from experts from around the country and the leaders of Louisiana’s four college systems. We suspect all of the above will be saying some of the same things that previous commissions, not to mention legislative committees, have heard before. That there are choices forced by hard times, and those choices aren’t going to be politically easy to resolve.
There are ideas out there, it’s just that all are politically difficult — and experts tend to disagree on what is best.
It might make sense to consolidate state schools into two systems, one for four-year colleges and one for community colleges and vocational schools. That has been proposed and shot down before. But it will be costly, and Jindal — and he is far from the only one —hasn’t pushed the idea very hard. A lot of the experts will say that’s not the route forward.
It might make sense to create one super-board out of the existing Board of Regents and let them organize regional groupings of colleges. But one of the agendas of the state, since the 1974 Louisiana Constitution, was to avoid internal battles about funding, which might be encouraged by regional groupings.
It surely makes some sense that Southern University — far down from its earlier enrollment — doesn’t need a chancellor and staff and a president, system staff and board staff for a “system” that includes even smaller campuses than the main campus here in Baton Rouge. But try that out on the Legislature. A merger of small Southern in New Orleans with its near-neighbor, the University of New Orleans, could not meet the steep requirement of a two-thirds vote of the House earlier this year.
On and on. For every idea, and the commissioners will hear a lot of them, there will be endless “buts,” and some of the shrewder commissioners almost automatically will be counting in their heads votes in the Legislature for each idea — and likely coming up short.
The “governance” part is hard, but the politics part is harder.
Here we go again. There doubtless will be some value in hearing from national experts, although we as a state ignored most of what they said in the previous version of the college commission game. And maybe the Davis commission will square circles in ways nobody has thought of before.