Gov. Bobby Jindal's push to "merge" the University of New Orleans (UNO) and Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO) has generated a lot more heat than light, and that's too bad. A study the governor requested by a national higher education consultant came back with some interesting conclusions for improving both schools — including that they not be merged after all.
Instead, the consultant recommended two alternatives for consolidating administrations and better coordinating curricula at UNO, SUNO and Delgado so metro area students can be better served.
Imagine that: a consultant's report that actually makes sensible recommendations rather than just parrots what the client-in-chief wants to hear.
Jindal immediately announced his support of the second alternative, even before the Board of Regents had a chance to formally review the document. That alternative calls for an administrative consolidation and relocation of SUNO onto UNO's campus.
Unfortunately, the governor continues to refer to the plan as a merger, which is not what the consultant has recommended. Jindal further muddied the waters by saying the plan will be refined in the legislative process, which leaves people wondering exactly what he is promoting.
If Jindal were truly embracing the consultant's report, he would not be talking about a merger at all. Of course, that would require that he be intellectually honest about his intentions, which currently are more political than educational.
Meanwhile, SUNO supporters are up in arms against the plan, even though SUNO's future would be a lot brighter — and its federal designation as a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) preserved — if the recommendations of the report were adopted. This, too, plays into Jindal's hands politically.
Truth is, the only people with something to lose under the plan are SUNO administrators, who arguably should be held accountable for the university's woefully low graduation rate. Under the consultant's plan, admission standards at both UNO and SUNO would increase significantly, which can only improve their respective graduation rates.
Most important, both universities would survive as separate institutions under the consultant's plan. There would be no merger. SUNO would continue to be an HBCU, albeit on UNO's campus, and UNO would finally get its independence from the LSU system by moving into the University of Louisiana system.
So why all the fuss?
Two reasons. First, SUNO administrators probably see this as the beginning of the end for their fiefdom. Second, Jindal is playing a political (read: re-election) game.
It's an old story in Louisiana: A governor who is slipping in the polls at election time picks on New Orleans to remind the bubbas that he's one of them. It plays even better if the governor can pick on blacks in New Orleans. Jindal could defuse a lot of the opposition by simply admitting his plan is not a merger, but "merger" plays too well outside New Orleans for that to happen.
When Jindal embraced the merger concept in January — without even consulting his allies beforehand — he polarized blacks and whites across the state. That's a despicable thing for a governor to do, but it suits Jindal's political purposes in this election year.
The governor asked the Board of Regents, which was already studying the idea, to prepare a report on the merger concept. He then announced his support of the consultant's "consolidation" alternative the day before the Regents were to vote on the report — thereby pre-empting their independent assessment as well.
It remains to be seen if Jindal truly embraces the consolidation proposal. If he continues to call it a merger, we'll know that he doesn't really care whether the idea succeeds — as long as it plays well for him politically.