Tulane acts to implement legislative scholarship policy _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Tulane University, New Orleans.

The Louisiana Legislature hasn’t exactly rushed to embrace many of the proposals drawn up this spring to reform the controversial, 130-year-old program that lets each legislator give one lucky student a full scholarship to the prestigious university each year.

So Tulane has taken on the task itself.

University officials Wednesday unveiled two major changes to the program that they will implement next year — changes that should broaden the pool of applicants for the scholarships and improve the transparency of the program, which often has been criticized as an insider’s game.

The changes won’t require any action by the Legislature, though university spokesman Michael Strecker said lawmakers had been briefed on Tulane’s plans.

First, every Louisiana student who is accepted at Tulane will automatically become eligible for a scholarship starting in the 2015-16 school year, officials said.

Currently, students must apply for the awards, and evidence suggests that few know about them. In the most recent school year, according to an analysis by the Public Affairs Research Council, 743 Louisiana students were accepted to Tulane, but only 134 — or fewer than one in five — applied for a legislative scholarship.

In a white paper on the program, PAR recommended making all state students automatically eligible, saying it would create a larger and presumably better-qualified pool of applicants and also address criticism that the program is poorly publicized, especially in some rural districts.

Second, Tulane will post on its website additional information about every scholarship recipient. Crucially, the university will disclose whether the student is related to an elected official and, if so, the name of the elected official and the nature of the relationship.

Students awarded the scholarships now must fill out a form making that disclosure, but few people get to see the forms. Although Tulane has provided the forms to the Legislature, the clerk of the House of Representatives and the secretary of the Senate have insisted the forms are private and have refused to open them to public inspection.

Roughly a dozen individual senators and representatives have, on their own, made public the forms filled out by the students they have sponsored for scholarships, but more than 130 members of the Legislature have declined to do so.

Those forms were created in the mid-1990s after a scandal erupted when it became known that many legislators had been using the Tulane scholarship program largely to benefit themselves, their relatives and their friends. Some of the program’s rules were tightened at the time — for instance, a legislator could no longer award a scholarship to himself — and the list of recipients was made public each year, something that hadn’t been done previously.

But the abuses didn’t go away entirely, and an investigation by The Advocate and WWL-TV last fall found that many scholarships were still going to people with political connections, including relatives and friends of powerful politicians and the children of people who made large donations to their campaigns.

That sparked a wave of reform proposals from legislators, ranging from doing away with the legislative scholarships altogether to banning awards to campaign contributors. Many of the bills have gotten a cool reception, with legislators worrying, for instance, that banning contributors’ relatives from the program would be unfair.

A modest set of reforms proposed by state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, was passed with amendments Wednesday by the Committee on Senate and Governmental Affairs and sent to the Senate floor.

Parts of Claitor’s amended bill mirror Tulane’s proposed changes: For instance, the school would be required to publish the forms showing whether recipients are related to elected officials, something Tulane now says it will do anyway.

In addition, Claitor’s bill would bar close relatives of major elected officials from receiving scholarships, and it sets forth a process by which a lawmaker can turn over the scholarship-award process to the university itself.

The bill, however, also allows a legislator “to establish his own selection criteria and directly nominate a student” for the award, which is what most lawmakers currently do. It’s that aspect of the program that has led to complaints of favoritism and capriciousness.