Memo to Joseph Rallo: Welcome to a passel of problems.
As the state’s new commissioner of higher education, Rallo comes from Texas at a time of transition for Louisiana’s colleges and universities.
The deep budget cuts during the administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal have forced major increases in tuition, even as the state’s obligation for TOPS tuition waivers continues to grow into the hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
The recent easing of the budget crises has been a false dawn, as very little in new money was available from the Jindal budgets approved by the 2014 Legislature. Most of the benefits that colleges got was because the administration and lawmakers did not take away new tuition revenues, raided over the past five years to pay for other priorities.
The money issues don’t stop there.
As commissioner, Rallo is hired by the Board of Regents, with oversight but limited authority over the operations of colleges. The four higher education management boards are political power centers in their own right, and there has been more than a little friction among them during years of cutbacks.
The image of lean, mangy dogs quarreling over scraps might overstate the situation, but not by much; the previous commissioner, Jim Purcell, was bedeviled by these conflicts even as the administration snarled over the Regents’ honest reports on higher education’s financial problems.
Particular campuses have concerns about enrollment and mission, from the University of New Orleans in a tough post-Katrina environment to LSU’s outpost in Shreveport, where community leaders have sought a merger with Louisiana Tech University in Ruston.
If one of the four systems can be most challenged right now, it is the Southern University campuses, where enrollment has suffered at the Baton Rouge flagship and leadership has been in flux under a contentious board. Southern cannot currently raise tuition again, because modest academic benchmarks set by the Regents have not been met.
Because of the racial politics involved, with the Legislative Black Caucus standing at the ready to back Southern, the paths forward are strewn with political land mines, too.
As a scholar, college administrator and former military officer, Rallo has experience that should serve him well. But few newcomers to Louisiana are really prepared for the political landscape here.
The governor is extremely powerful, but now term-limited. A free-for-all is developing in the 2015 race. But the budget challenges of two fiscal years, beginning each July 1, will have to be met in an atmosphere of transition, in which the value of increasing investments in higher education may be given lip-service but are unlikely to be backed up by hard cash.
We welcome Rallo and wish him luck. We believe that investing in universities is keys to Louisiana’s economic future. Getting that back on track after the better part of a decade of stumbling will require considerable leadership on his part — and support from higher education and the state’s business community going forward.