When Demetrius Sumner sits down at the next meeting of the Louisiana Board of Regents, the Southern University student will be the only African-American and the only minority among the 15 board members.
Last December, just before announcing his plan to seek a merger of two Louisiana universities, Gov. Bobby Jindal changed the face of the Board of Regents by appointing only White male members to the open seats. The members have a five-year term. The lone student representative is not appointed by the governor but is elected by fellow student government leaders for a one-year term. Sumner, the current SGA president at Southern’s Baton Rouge campus, serves until April.
“I’ve done some research, and this is the first time this has happened since the board’s inception,” says attorney Cleo Fields, a former U.S. Congressman who recently filed suit on behalf of students at Southern University of New Orleans and the University of New Orleans to stop a commissioned study into the plausibility of combining the two schools into a new institution. The board was created to oversee the state’s 19 higher education institutions in 1974. Fields was the board’s student representative in 1984.
On Thursday, a court hearing is scheduled to determine the merits of the lawsuit. The suit contends that the board’s makeup is unconstitutional because it does not reflect the racial and gender diversity of the state, which is about 37 percent minority.
The merger study and the ensuing lawsuit have focused attention on the governor’s recent appointments. In a December news release, the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus issued a statement decrying the lack of diversity in the appointments, stating, “Governor Jindal ignored a long-standing Louisiana law directing the governor to appoint these members based on the state’s gender and race population.” The LLBC added that Jindal appointed a total of five White males to the board, and three White males to the University of Louisiana Board of Supervisors. The group also noted that seven of the eight appointees had been contributors to the governor’s campaign.
Jindal has publicly responded to the criticism by stating that he looks for the best qualified people to serve in appointed positions. LLBC chairwoman Rep. Patricia Smith says Jindal “is basically defying the constitution, and he’s saying there are no qualified minorities or women to take these positions. He’s the first governor we know of to do this.”
Current board members are not permitted to comment on the lack of diversity because of the pending litigation says board spokeswoman Meg Casper. However, Dr. Ingrid LaBat, an African-American whose term expired in December, says she was not surprised at the appointments and she did not expect to be appointed to a second term. “We serve at the pleasure of the governor, and I was appointed by the previous governor (Kathleen Blanco).”
“I would hope that those on the board take into consideration all of the citizens of the state and their needs and backgrounds when they make their decisions,” she says.
Fields notes that the latest appointees to the board are allowed to function fully and vote as board members, although they have not yet been confirmed by the Legislature.
He says he is hoping that the board members will rectify the situation. “There are some good people on the board, and I think they ought to resign, not because they have done anything wrong, but because the governor has put them in a very bad position. We can’t have one race of people deciding the future of higher education for any state.”