Education reform is a never-ending crusade in Louisiana. That is true at both the higher-ed and elementary and secondary education levels. In the past 15 years, Louisiana has made significant progress on both educational fronts, but much work remains to be done. The annual legislative session that concluded four weeks ago began with high hopes for major reforms in higher-ed governance and structure, but in this election year lawmakers declined to accept most of the challenges placed before them by Gov. Bobby Jindal. All was not lost, however. Jindal last week signed into law two significant reform measures that lawmakers did approve: one transferring the University of New Orleans (UNO) to the University of Louisiana (UL) System; and one building on the gains contained in last year's widely praised Granting Resources and Autonomy for Diplomas (GRAD) Act.
Moving UNO out of the LSU System has been a long time coming. Ever since the university opened its doors as LSU-New Orleans in 1958, the Lakefront campus has been a stepchild of the LSU System. This is not to criticize the main campus of LSU in any way. LSU is and should be the state's "flagship" university. The country's leading public universities all carry that designation — but not at the expense of other fine state universities. In fact, many states, such as North Carolina, have at least two outstanding public universities, each with a distinctive mission that complements the other.
UNO could and should have been that complement to LSU, but too often those running the LSU System viewed the local university as a competitor rather than a partner to LSU. Time and again, their idea of building up LSU meant keeping UNO under the system's administrative and political thumb, sometimes to the point of academic oppression. Last year's firing of UNO Chancellor Tim Ryan was but the latest example. Ryan's attempts to bring UNO back after Hurricane Katrina were stymied at virtually every turn by LSU System officials who seemed intent on dismantling rather than rebuilding the university — and when Ryan bucked them one time too many, he paid the ultimate price.
Ryan's firing helped trigger the latest move to get UNO out of the LSU System and into the UL System. That was initially supposed to be part of Jindal's plan to merge UNO and Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO). When the UNO-SUNO merger bill stalled, the idea of moving UNO to the UL System gained momentum and passed handily. Appropriately, Jindal signed the measure in the Homer L. Hitt Alumni and Visitors Center on UNO's campus — on the desk once used by Hitt, UNO's founding chancellor, who first advocated moving UNO out of the LSU System more than three decades ago.
In the friendlier UL System, UNO will join universities that are peers, not competitors. Those institutions include Louisiana Tech and the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, both of which, like UNO, emphasize research. This will encourage strategic partnerships among peer institutions. "I think UNO is poised to thrive in a system of great research universities ... where there's not one flagship school, but rather a collection of great schools that work together, but at the same time have the flexibility to make decisions on their campuses," Jindal noted. We agree.
Also last week, Jindal signed into law GRAD 2.0. Authored by House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, the original GRAD Act of 2010 encourages the state Board of Regents to negotiate performance contracts with individual universities. Institutions that meet their goals (including retention and graduation rates) receive greater operational autonomy. Tucker's GRAD 2.0 builds upon the original act by implementing the Regents' performance-funding formula, raising admission standards at four-year institutions, giving system management boards authority to adjust self-generated revenues (read: tuition increases, when necessary), and creating "centers of excellence" at community and technical colleges. The bill also standardizes and coordinates the tracking of students' course credits to facilitate on-time graduation and transfers, and it expands transparency and accountability by requiring the Regents to provide an annual cost-performance analysis of GRAD Act resources and outcomes.
Louisiana has miles to go before its public universities will rank among the nation's best, but the two measures signed into law last week are steps in the right direction.