Faced with raising taxes to restore the state budget to balance — an unattractive option politically — many legislators responsible for the failures of the past eight years are now seizing issues, any issue, that will distract the public’s attention.
One of those is Conrad Appel, of Metairie, former chairman of the Senate Education Committee, who discovers this late in his legislative career that Louisiana has a bloated system of higher educational institutions.
Appel’s criticism of higher education officials is that there are too many institutions of higher learning in the state and that the experts aren’t recommending drastic changes to the lineup. Appel rightly notes that we have four-year colleges aplenty, often within easy driving distance, or colleges next to community colleges.
These complaints are not new and were thoroughly laid out in The Advocate’s extensive series of articles this year about the woes of higher education, “Cutting Classes.” The problem with rehearsing them again, in a tax session, is that legislative leaders of the past eight years — Appel included — haven’t been part of the solution for a long time and now act like town criers in the midst of budgetary crisis.
Louisiana’s commissioner of higher education, Joe Rallo, a veteran of the Texas Tech system, rightly turned the issue of college coordination back on Appel.
Reform is in the hands of the Legislature. Rallo noted that 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 mergers and sadly were unable to go forward with them,” Rallo said. “The legislative process stood in the way.”
We would say both Appel and Rallo have some leeway to make changes — if they can get their colleagues to agree.
In Appel’s case, it’s the legislators who huff and puff about inefficiencies at campuses far away from their districts but band together against mergers or closures of their own institutions. In Rallo’s case, he works for a gubernatorially appointed board that ought to be above politics; in fact, the Board of Regents under most governors is a collection of political supporters and campaign contributors. Its independence under former Gov. Bobby Jindal was compromised by a powerful Governor’s Office.
Barry Erwin, president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, told the Press Club of Baton Rouge that Louisiana would not have today’s system of higher education if it could be built from the ground up but that deep historical and political factors prevent such root-and-branch changes.
What can be done? In the last campaign, Gov. John Bel Edwards — with the other candidates -— generally avoided the questions of institutional merger or closures; privately, the political capital needed to make changes was deemed by all the candidates as too large for little gain.
We note the comment of Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council: “Four-year schools bear part of the responsibility for the (fiscal) situation we’re in,” he said. “Their insistence on not consolidating on a regional basis, on keeping multiple silos … there’s no central back-office administration for a lot of these schools. There are a lot of things they could do to make their operations more efficient, and they’re not doing them.”
Appel is suggesting, constructively, that the Legislature and Regents work harder on a smoother process for students to transfer credits between institutions. There are other ways colleges and community colleges can better collaborate. The regents, for their part, work in a complicated system of management boards that limits their powers, but as an institution, the board could mandate significant cutbacks in academic programs that proliferate around the state.
That might not save much money this year and thus won’t avoid the tough tax votes awaiting Appel and others. But it could start to set a precedent for reductions that could get somewhere in future years.