While fuzzy on details about where the money will come from, both candidates for governor want to spend more on state colleges and universities wracked by budget cuts during the administration of Gov. Bobby Jindal.
The candidates share a significant disagreement with the Jindal record, but a recent debate brought out some differences in emphasis between Republican David Vitter and Democrat John Bel Edwards.
Both deplore the cycle of budget cuts initiated by Jindal.
As Edwards, a Democrat, said in a recent debate before the Press Club of Baton Rouge, the “recipe for disaster” has been the reduction in state support and a consequent rise in tuition — more cuts than any other state, steeper tuition hikes.
Edwards set the most specific — and more ambitious — goal of a 50-50 split between state aid and tuition. During the Jindal years, tuition became the dominant revenue source for colleges and universities.
Vitter has proposed strengthening the Board of Regents, ostensibly the top board overseeing four other management boards for different college systems. But that’s a controversial step, not least because the management boards are influential politically and don’t want Regents control.
Racial politics is also a problem, because the Southern University System’s interests are closely guarded by African-American members of the Legislature. Efforts to create a single board have failed in previous administrations, and Edwards told the Press Club that there’s no “best-practices” model for how to structure higher education.
Edwards agreed that the Regents should be the top board, and today “there is some confusion over what responsibility is held” in higher education.
But he suggested that the funding crisis is the first step. “That’s the critical priority for the Legislature, not the governance structure,” Edwards said.
Vitter cited four separate nursing programs in the Shreveport-Bossier area. We need nurses, he said. “We do not need four sets of bureaucracy running the show.”
The Republican called for reducing duplication and giving Regents more control of the system. Today, the top board has “little or no enforcement power,” Vitter said.
That’s not entirely true; Regents’ moves have cut programs on many campuses and its authority in terms of academic programming is pretty complete. But in a time of budget cuts, the political realities are considerably different from the formal organization chart.
We agree with Edwards that funding is the immediate priority but we would argue Vitter is right in that lawmakers, and the public, should be shown how the system is right-sized as we put more money into higher education.