Is it time to clear the decks for reform in Louisiana higher education?

We think so, and the quickest way to sort out our college problems would be through consolidating decisions in a single higher education board, answerable for implementing a truly statewide vision.

Today, in Louisiana, we have five boards overseeing our 29 universities and two-year colleges. At the top of the pyramid is the Board of Regents, with four subsidiary boards, but in terms of political powers they are essentially separate centers of influence.

The Southern University system board oversees the historically black schools, except for Grambling, which is under the University of Louisiana system.

There is a separate board for the two-year schools; except for the one in Shreveport, which is part of the Southern system, and the one in Eunice, which answers to the LSU system board.

There are two universities across the street from each other in New Orleans, both struggling with enrollment declines since Hurricane Katrina. But they’re under different boards.

We have two public law schools, both in Baton Rouge, even though there is a towering nationwide surplus of lawyers and, consequently, applications are dropping. They’re both aligned with different boards too.

Is this what Louisiana would design if it had to start from scratch? Of course not, but deep political — as well as racial — gaps remain in society, and differing expectations get in the way of not just difficult measures like consolidation of campuses but basic common sense like collaboration on academic programs and cutting back-office costs.

These changes depend on both a two-thirds vote of the Legislature and approval by a majority of the people in an election. Several constitutional amendments to consolidate boards have been filed, including Senate Bill 67 by Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metaire, a former chairman of the Senate’s education panel, but House bills also are in the mix.

Opposition to board consolidation is largely based on fear. Other campuses fear that LSU in Baton Rouge would rule the roost; LSU boosters fear the flagship would be hobbled by its jealous fellows. Historically black universities feel threatened, two-year campuses feel threatened, everybody feels like they don’t get the money they need.

Higher education is a political and managerial mess, ruled by the sum of those fears. If residents of Louisiana are being asked to pay big tax increases to fund higher education, they have a right to demand that there is somebody that is in charge of making decisions on the basis of the state’s needs — not local priorities, not internal job titles, not political patronage.

Former Gov. Buddy Roemer once pointed out there is no perfect system, that some states have colleges thriving under multiple boards and others under a single board. Our choice should be going in a different direction than what we have now, Roemer suggested, and that’s a single board.

He is right. Given the chaos in Louisiana, we urge the Legislature to override petty concerns and give the state’s campuses both new funding and a new direction.