BATON ROUGE, La. — A judge refused Thursday to block a Board of Regents study looking into the possible consolidation of Southern University at New Orleans with the University of New Orleans.
District Judge Tim Kelley ruled against a group of Southern students’ request for an injunction to end the study and stop any merger of the historically Black SUNO campus and the largely White UNO campus until determining whether the Regents board is constitutional.
Kelley said the students didn’t show they would be irreparably harmed by a continuing study and couldn’t show that they were likely to prove the constitutional challenge that has yet to be decided.
“While the court does not dispute the serious nature of the business being conducted by the board, nor its potential effects on the higher education system in Louisiana, the plaintiffs have failed to prove the necessary elements for the issuance of a preliminary injunction,” Kelley wrote.
Lawyer and former state Sen. Cleo Fields, on behalf of the Southern students, argued the board makeup is unconstitutional because it doesn’t adequately represent Black and female Louisianians.
Fields said he would appeal Kelley’s decision.
“We’re not accepting today’s ruling,” he said. “We feel that we have a very strong case on appeal.”
The lawsuit is filed against the board and Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Jindal asked for the study investigating the possible merger of the two institutions, saying a consolidated campus could better serve students. Regents hired a Colorado-based consultant to review the issue.
Jindal issued a statement Thursday praising Kelley’s ruling.
“As we’ve said all along, this issue isn’t about politics, turf or management boards. It’s about doing what’s best for students,” the statement said.
Fields and the students say Jindal violated a state constitutional provision enacted in 1998 that said the Regents “should be representative of the state’s population by race and gender to ensure diversity.”
In his decision, Kelley said Fields failed to show that he would likely win the case on the merits of the constitutional argument. Kelley said the word “should” is regularly interpreted by the courts to have a permissible meaning, rather than the requirement of a word like “shall.”
The 16-member Regents board has four female members and one Black member — who is a student representative — in a state where 32 percent of residents are Black and 52 percent are female, according to the lawsuit. All nine gubernatorial appointees named by Jindal are White.
Three lawmakers testified on behalf of the Southern students that lawmakers meant the constitutional language to be a requirement that the Regents board include minorities and women.
“It is my feeling and my belief that the board, if it is all-White, is not doing what the constitution wanted. I don’t think it’s legal,” said former state Sen. Foster Campbell, now a member of the Public Service Commission.
Fields also showed a voter guide issued in 1998 and approved by the Attorney General’s Office that said the constitutional language “requires” the board to be representative of the state’s racial and gender makeup.
Jindal asked for the merger study to be completed by March 1, but a Regents spokeswoman said that date couldn’t be met because of work slowdown attributed to the lawsuit.
The SUNO and UNO campuses are only blocks apart, and both show graduation rates far below the Southern average. Jindal asked Regents to look at whether to merge the campuses, move the consolidated school to the University of Louisiana System and allow the nearby community college to use some of the merged campus’ facilities.
The Louisiana Legislature would have to approve those changes.
Southern University leaders, alumni and students, along with Black lawmakers and state Democratic leaders, oppose a merger, saying it would reduce educational opportunities for African-American students and wouldn’t save money.
“A Republican judge gave Gov. Jindal the ruling he wanted, but Louisiana Democrats remain 100 percent opposed to Jindal’s plan to eliminate Southern University at New Orleans,” said Kevin Franck, a spokesman for the Louisiana Democratic Party, in a statement.
UNO currently is managed by the Louisiana State University System, while SUNO is managed by the Southern University System.