La. Gov. Bobby Jindal Defends SUNO/UNO Merger in House Committee

BATON ROUGE, La. — Merging historically Black Southern University at New Orleans with the largely White University of New Orleans would give students better educational opportunities at schools that aren’t fully using their facilities and that have low graduation rates, Gov. Bobby Jindal told a House committee.

Jindal took his case for the merger directly to state lawmakers, appearing before the House Education Committee.

“Clearly what we’re doing now is not working. We’ve got to do a better job,” Jindal said. “The status quo is not acceptable. This is your chance to improve education for our students. This is your chance to make history.”

House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, has introduced legislation to merge the institutions. The bill would create the University of Louisiana-New Orleans in the University of Louisiana System. It would be a single university with shared accreditation and leadership, but with two colleges under its umbrella, with different admissions standards, missions and program offerings.

A branch campus of the nearby Delgado Community College would offer remedial courses and college transfer degree programs at the site.

Opponents say a consolidation would diminish educational opportunities for minority students, jeopardize federal funding that is slated for historically Black colleges and take away choices for students in the New Orleans area.

Tucker disagreed, saying, “We’re not letting anybody fall through the cracks. We’re not, and damn it that’s what we’re doing now.”

Jindal said he thinks the UL System would seek to keep SUNO’s status as a historically Black college and the federal dollars associated with that distinction.

Critics say SUNO offers a more nurturing environment for nontraditional students who face economic and personal challenges, and they said data that shows an 8 percent SUNO graduation rate was skewed because it didn’t take into account the nontraditional students who attend the school part-time, transfer there from other campuses and take much longer than six years to get a degree. For example, 442 people will graduate this month from SUNO, but only 14 meet the requirements to count toward SUNO’s graduation rate.

While the schools would maintain separate missions, the bill is clear that SUNO and UNO “shall cease to exist as separately accredited institutions and shall be consolidated, along with their assets, funds, obligations, liabilities, programs and functions.”

The proposal being considered by lawmakers is different from the recommendation made by the state’s top higher education board, the Board of Regents, which backed a scenario that urged against a wholesale merger and joint accreditation but did push for a consolidation with separate campuses under one university.

Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell described the bill as tightly following the Regents recommendations and providing a “solid framework for change.”

But several lawmakers on the committee said that mischaracterized the proposal suggested by Regents.

“It seems to me you went way out of your way to artificially align what the Regents voted on and what’s before us here today,” said Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite. “I don’t think you’ve done that (comparison) in a meaningful way.”

Purcell said a national accrediting agency for colleges said the two schools wouldn’t be able to maintain separate accreditations as proposed by the Regents board, and he said the merged university proposed under Tucker’s bill would follow the guiding principles for improving education that were backed by Regents.