BATON ROUGE, La. — Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal scrapped a proposal to merge the historically Black Southern University at New Orleans with the largely White University of New Orleans, a racially charged idea that had generated staunch opposition from Black lawmakers and Democratic leaders.
House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, sponsor of the legislation, said Wednesday that he doesn’t have the two-thirds support needed for passage and doesn’t expect to be able to get the votes this legislative session. He said he won’t push forward on a House floor vote that had been scheduled and scuttled twice.
“I think it’s a sad day for higher education in New Orleans,” he said. “I think the combined institution is stronger than the parts. I think it was the right thing to do for the students, the institutions and the community, but I could not get 70 people to agree with me, so the governor and I decided we would back off on the merger.”
The decision hands Jindal a significant defeat. He had made the consolidation one of his key education initiatives for the regular session.
Jindal’s office issued a statement, saying, “We continue to believe the status quo for students in New Orleans is unacceptable, and we’re not going to give up on our fight to improve educational opportunities. We make no apologies for pushing big, ambitious and bold ideas to improve our state.”
The Legislature’s Black caucus praised the decision to give up on the merger. Rep. Austin Badon, D-New Orleans, said it was “an ecstatic, happy day” for opponents of the consolidation, who had argued it would lessen educational opportunities for minority and poorer students. He said abandoning the bill will bring the House together and end a divisive atmosphere.
“There was intense lobbying on both sides, and it was really wearing down the membership here,” Badon said.
Badon estimated the bill was as many as six votes short of passage.
White Democrats had been the swing voters needed to reach the two-thirds support required. Though Tucker earlier said he had enough lawmakers to push the bill through the House, he said Wednesday that the Black caucus had picked off at least two of his White Democratic supporters within the past 48 hours. He wouldn’t name them.
Tucker said he will push for UNO to be moved to the University of Louisiana System and to enter into agreements with SUNO and the nearby Delgado Community College for closer collaboration. Black caucus leaders and Jindal have pledged their support for such an effort.
Supporters had argued a combination of SUNO and UNO into a newly created University of Louisiana at New Orleans would give students better educational opportunities at schools that aren’t fully using their facilities since Hurricane Katrina struck five years ago and that have dismal graduation rates.
“The higher education community in New Orleans took a blow today,” Tucker said as he announced the defeat on the House floor.
The merged UL-NO would have been housed in the University of Louisiana System. It would have been a single university with shared accreditation and leadership, but with two colleges under its umbrella with different admissions standards, missions and program offerings.
Opponents criticized the consolidation proposal as an attempt to dismantle historically Black colleges and universities in Louisiana. They said it would jeopardize federal funding that is slated for historically Black colleges and take away choices for students in the New Orleans area. They said SUNO takes in students who need a more nurturing environment, students who are single parents, who work full-time jobs or who are returning to school after dropping out of other institutions.
“I know all of us are going to work very hard to ensure that SUNO will become the best school that it can become,” said Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, chairman of the Legislature’s Black caucus.