BATON ROUGE, La. – By pushing out a 14-year-member of the Board of Regents to make room for a minority appointee, Gov. Bobby Jindal is acknowledging it doesn’t look good to pack the state’s top higher education board with White members.
It might have been better if the Republican governor had thought that as he was making appointments the first time — before he ignited a racially charged debate over merging the historically Black Southern University at New Orleans with the largely White University of New Orleans, and before he got slapped with a lawsuit for the Board’s lack of diversity.
The state’s Constitution, after all, says the Regents “should be representative of the state’s population by race and gender to ensure diversity,” a provision enacted in 1998.
Last week, the Jindal administration edged out Roland Toups, who had served on the Board since 1997. Toups’ exit came about a week before the study of a possible SUNO/UNO merger is due to the board.
Toups was then replaced with Albert Sam II, a Black surgeon from Baton Rouge.
The announcement that Toups was leaving included statements from Board Chairman Bob Levy and Jindal praising Toups’ service, but offered no explanation of why he was resigning.
Toups made up for that lack of explanation in his resignation letter to Levy.
“Gov. Jindal requested that I voluntarily resign to allow him the latitude to achieve diversity on the Board of Regents. After discussions with the governor on Friday, I have agreed to step down effective March 6,” Toups wrote.
The senior member of the Board, Toups was first appointed by former Gov. Mike Foster and was reappointed by Jindal in January 2009.
By prodding Toups to leave and replacing him with Sam, doesn’t Jindal give some credence to the merger lawsuit, showing that even if he can win the case on the letter of the law, he hasn’t matched the intent of the diversity provision approved by voters in a statewide referendum?
Complaints about Jindal’s appointees have grown louder since the SUNO/UNO merger talk began.
The Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus accuses Jindal of stacking high-powered boards and commissions with all-White members and excluding Blacks — an accusation Jindal denies.
With Toups, the 16-member Board had one Black member, a student representative, in a state where one-third of residents are Black. All nine appointees named by Jindal had been White, until Sam’s appointment last week.
Jindal has denied any racial or political motivation for the study request, saying a consolidated campus might better serve students.
Sam will miss the merger discussion, saying through a spokeswoman that his surgery schedule conflicted with the Board’s meeting.
District Judge Tim Kelley refused to block the merger study while the lawsuit by several SUNO students winds its way through the courts. The students, represented by former state Sen. Cleo Fields, say the Board is unconstitutional because it doesn’t adequately represent Black and female Louisianians.
Kelley said Fields failed to show he likely would win the case on the merits of the constitutional argument.
Kelley said the word “should” in the constitutional provision is regularly interpreted by the courts to have a permissible meaning, rather than the requirement connotation of a word like “shall.”
Even if Jindal wins the legal argument, ousting Toups for a minority board member shows the governor knows there’s a perception problem about his lack of Black appointments.