Taking the Reigns

BATON ROUGE, LA.

When he’s sworn into office in January, 36-year-old Bobby Jindal will become the youngest governor in the United States.

But the Republican congressman’s tender age is not turning heads as much as his ethnicity. Both of Jindal’s parents immigrated to Louisiana from India shortly before he was born, and he will become the first Indian-American governor in U.S. history.

In the Oct. 20 election, Jindal outpaced the field of gubernatorial hopefuls by winning 54 percent of the votes cast, with a campaign that promised to stomp out corruption and incompetence in state government. But he won with 63 percent of the White vote, and captured just 10 percent of the Black vote, according to political analyst Greg Rigamer, who has developed a computer system to track election turnout.

Despite his low numbers among Black voters, Jindal is pledging to give every citizen of Louisiana equal access to state government and is eager to earn their trust by raising the ethical standards for legislators and others in Louisiana state government.

While getting the state Legislature to pass an ethics reform bill is his first order of business, Jindal also has some ideas about improving higher education in Louisiana. He wants to stem high school dropouts by aggressively steering students into dual enrollment, dual-track programs that allow them to earn college credit.

He says the community and technical college system in Louisiana — one of the last states in the nation to create one in 1999 — is severely underutilized.

“In California, 80 percent of their kids start in a community college or technical school. The Southern average is 50 percent, but Louisiana’s only at between 20 to 25 percent,” Jindal says. “We’ve got some of the fastest-growing community and technical colleges in the nation, but we need to do even more to encourage that growth.”

Jindal earned two bachelor’s degrees with honors from Brown University and a master’s from Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar.

He was elected to the U.S. Congress in 2005 representing the first district (the western suburbs of New Orleans and part of the city), following an unsuccessful gubernatorial bid in 2003. His extensive experience in state government includes a stint as secretary of the Department of Health and Hospitals and president of the University of Louisiana System.

In his previous campaign for governor, Democratic opponent Kathleen Blanco criticized his performance as UL system president because of the fiscal problems that almost cost Grambling State University its accreditation. Jindal noted that Grambling’s problems started long before he took the reins of the UL system, and said that he laid the groundwork that eventually got the historically Black university out of hot water with the regional accreditation agency.

Blanco went on to become Louisiana’s first female governor, but chose not to seek re-election this year after drawing criticism about her performance during Hurricane Katrina.

Jindal’s job at the UL system never emerged as an issue in the 2007 campaign, and Jindal said in an interview after the election that he feels there is definitely a place for historically Black schools like Grambling in Louisiana.

Jindal says he wants to rework the state funding formula to encourage each Louisiana public university to develop a unique mission with special programs.

“When I was at the UL System, we encouraged each school to identify unique areas of excellence, and I want to see each of our institutions develop a role and mission that they do better than anybody else,” Jindal says.

In the past, Louisiana public colleges have been funded based largely on enrollment, but Jindal said he wants to instill more accountability in the system.

“We can’t simply fund institutions based on enrollment. We’ve got to look at retention, graduation rates, job placement rates and research activity,” he says.

Jindal says he also wants to encourage more research at Louisiana universities by doubling the state’s research and development tax credit, rewarding through compensation and tenure successful university researchers and allowing the faculty and students to retain their royalties, their patents and their earnings.

“If you did that, I think you’d see even more research activity,” Jindal says, noting that the University of Alabama at Birmingham does more research than all of Louisiana’s public universities combined. D

–Scott Dyer

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