Hope and Uncertainty as University of New Orleans Looks To Leave LSU System

NEW ORLEANS – Hurricane Katrina, the dismissal of a popular chancellor and a proposed merger with a neighboring institution are over with, but uncertainty remains at the University of New Orleans, which opened 52 years ago as an arm of Louisiana State University and is preparing to leave the fold.

Votes in the House and Senate on Monday moved the university closer to a transfer from the LSU System, where some feel it has operated in the shadow of the campus in Baton Rouge, to the University of Louisiana System. UL operates Louisiana Tech, Nicholls State and other regional universities.

The school’s administration says students won’t notice the difference. Students seem unconcerned except to say that they hope the school benefits. Some on the faculty express strong support for the idea while others would like more information.

Specifics on how the university might benefit are hard to come by but lawmakers sense a definite mood for change.

“I’ve heard the frustrations of the folks at UNO,” Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, said as she spoke in favor of the switch.

Steve Striffler, who joined the university’s anthropology department three years ago, said he believes that, the longer someone has been teaching at UNO, the more likely they are to be for the switch. “The folks that have been there longer are probably more tired of the LSU System than, say, someone like myself,” he said. “I don’t have a long history of being frustrated with the LSU System.”

Striffler isn’t opposed to the switch but is uncertain about what it will mean.

“The general sentiment is: UNO is the stepchild of LSU and that once it gets out of that system it will flourish. And that may be the case. But it strikes me that there must be a lot of questions or that switching systems is a lot more complicated than that suggests,” Striffler said.

Switching would be the latest chapter in almost six years of on-and-off tumult at the school.

Hurricane Katrina flooded part of the campus and shut it down for a semester in 2005, leading to a drop in enrollment. It’s about 11,200 now, a sizable drop from the 17,000 before Katrina.

Athletic programs, including men’s basketball, dropped from NCAA Division I to Division II. Last September, a handful of UNO students barricaded themselves in a classroom building and then led a class walkout and outdoor rally of about 150 to protest millions of dollars in budget cuts.

A couple weeks later, Chancellor Tim Ryan hastily called a news conference to announce that he was being ousted after complaining about what he described as an LSU management that was unresponsive to his funding requests and that sought to run UNO as a “branch campus of LSU Baton Rouge.”

A search for Ryan’s replacement was suspended earlier this year after Gov. Bobby Jindal called for a merger of UNO with the neighboring, historically Black Southern University of New Orleans. That proposal died in the Legislature but a residual issue having the UL System govern the campus lived on.

“The folks at UNO believe if they get out of the LSU System they’ll have a lot more freedom to experiment, to grow, to prosper,” said the legislation’s Senate sponsor, Conrad Appel, R-Metairie.

“I think there are some good opportunities in this transfer for UNO, and I am firmly in favor of it,” English professor Bob Shenk said in answer to an e-mail query.

Both the House and Senate had overwhelmingly agreed to the transfer as of Monday but haven’t agreed on a final version of the proposal. Among the questions are financial, including how debts will be handled and who will bear the costs of any legal issues.

Faculty have also raised questions about how the switch will affect tenure, workload and research opportunities. An amendment to the transfer legislation by Peterson states that employees with tenure or in a tenure-track position will remain under existing policies. As for workload and research time, UNO spokesman Adam Norris said, “UNO presently dictates faculty workload, not the LSU System. That will not change if UNO moves to the UL System.”

“The UL System is more of a confederacy than a union. Everyone is able to progress at their own pace,” said House Speaker Jim Tucker, a sponsor of the transfer legislation.

Legislative debate on the switch is taking place in the middle of a summer session at UNO. Students were generally aware of the issue, but “it hasn’t really been at the forefront,” said Arineka Smith, 21, of New Orleans.

Chris Acosta, 23, of Chalmette, a senior, agrees the transfer issue is not foremost on students’ minds right now.

“The hope is we’ll get more state funding,” he said. “We’re not getting much from LSU.”