NEW ORLEANS – Legislation moving the University of New Orleans from the Louisiana State University system to the University of Louisiana System was signed Tuesday by Gov. Bobby Jindal, who said it will give the 52-year-old UNO much needed autonomy from the system that is home to the state’s flagship university in Baton Rouge.
“I think UNO is poised to thrive in a system of great research universities like UNO, where there is not one flagship school,” Jindal said during a signing ceremony on the UNO campus. He said the LSU system is not designed to give UNO the foundation it needs. And he said the UL system, home to eight universities in different parts of the state, will give the support and flexibility to thrive.
“Look at how UL-Lafayette and Louisiana Tech are allowed to expand their research programs, are allowed to grow, are allowed to keep resources on their campuses. I think UNO is going to do extremely well,” Jindal said.
Legislators approved the measure in the recently ended legislative session, saying there has long been a feeling among many on the New Orleans campus that UNO has been in the shadow of LSU and has often felt neglected by the system’s leadership. The switch needs the approval of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, a step which officials expect will come at a SACS board meeting in December.
Sentiment for a transfer is nothing new at UNO. The signing took place in an alumni center named for UNO’s founding chancellor, Homer Hitt. Acting Chancellor Joe King wryly noted that Jindal was sitting at a desk where Hitt, who led the university for 22 years, first called for UNO to be removed from the LSU system.
But calls for a transfer gained momentum in recent years of on-again-off-again tumult that included heavy damage from Hurricane Katrina and the ouster of a chancellor who was critical of his bosses at LSU.
Katrina shut the campus down for a semester and preceded a drop in enrollment. About 11,200 now, it was 17,000 before the storm.
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 rally of 150 to protest against millions of dollars in budget cuts. Weeks later, Chancellor Tim Ryan announced that he was being ousted after complaining about what he described as an LSU management that was unresponsive to his funding requests. He also complained of its attempts to run UNO as a “branch campus of LSU Baton Rouge.”
And, while the transfer has proven popular, it was an issue left over from a racially charged proposal by Jindal to remove nearby, historically Black Southern University at New Orleans from the Southern University System, merge it with UNO and place the new entity under the UL system. Strong opposition from Black lawmakers and many in the New Orleans political establishment helped thwart that idea.
House Speaker Jim Tucker, a UNO graduate, had backed the merger and expressed disappointment at its failure. He cheered the transfer of his alma mater during Tuesday’s ceremony.
Jindal noted that the transfer legislation by Tucker, R-Terrytown, and Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, also calls for the state’s top higher education board to complete a plan for coordinating the work of the UL, LSU, Southern and state community college systems. All have campuses in the New Orleans area and are bidding to improve student performance at all levels. That would include coordination of the use of facilities, Jindal stressed, at a time when some buildings on the UNO and SUNO campuses are often unused and classrooms at Delgado Community College are overcrowded.