Southern University New Orleans Chancellor: Low Graduation Rate No Reason To Merge

NEW ORLEANS – Hundreds of students, faculty and alumni of Southern University at New Orleans rallied Wednesday to protest a proposed merger of the predominantly Black school with the neighboring University of New Orleans.

Gov. Bobby Jindal last week asked the state’s top higher education board, the Board of Regents, to do a study of a possible merger ahead of the spring legislative session. Lawmakers’ approval would be needed for a merger, and opponents at Wednesday’s meeting made clear they will lobby against it.

“If we allow the state to take this institution, then as a community and as a people, we have failed our children,” Faculty Senate President Joseph Bouie said.

SUNO and UNO are a short distance from each other. Both campuses were flooded when levees failed during Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. SUNO shows lingering physical effects from the storm, with many classes still held in trailers.

Jindal’s proposal, which would need two-thirds approval by the state House and Senate, would remove SUNO from the historically Black Southern University System and UNO from the Louisiana State University System, merging them into one institution that would be run by the University of Louisiana System.

Low post-Katrina enrollment and low graduation rates at both schools were among reasons Jindal gave for considering the merger.

SUNO Chancellor Victor Ukpolo said neither was a legitimate reason for a move that he said would damage SUNO’s mission to provide higher education opportunities to the economically disadvantaged.

While Jindal said the graduation rate was 5 percent, Ukpolo’s statistics showed the 2008 graduation rate was just under 7 percent. No surprise, he said, since the 2005 storm drove away many students temporarily or permanently. “It’s directly impacted by Katrina,” he said of the rate.

The rate also is based on the number of people who get degrees within six years, Ukpolo said. That leaves out others who take longer to get a degree.

Still, Ukpolo said, enrollment is bouncing back. Projected spring enrollment of 3,500 is a 71-percent increase over the semester following Katrina.

That figure would bring SUNO to about 96 percent of its pre-Katrina enrollment.

Ukpolo predicted graduation rates rebounding in two years into the teens still low but more in line with pre-Katrina rates.

However, Southern supporters said there are more important reasons than graduation rates for keeping SUNO a separate, historically Black university.

At the rally in the gym, state employee Anthony Jeanmarie described himself as a 35-year-old senior who dropped out of college as an immature 19-year-old. He said he now has a son who also attends SUNO as a freshman. With his wife in nursing school, the psychology major said he doesn’t think he could afford another institution, nor could he find one where the faculty is flexible enough to let him occasionally bring his two smaller children, ages 7 and 6, to class.

“If not SUNO, where?” Jeanmarie asked the cheering crowd.