The importance of the University of New Orleans to the region's cultural, intellectual and economic development cannot be overstated. When UNO opened its doors as LSUNO in 1958, it became the first public university in Louisiana that never saw a day of racial segregation. Over the years, New Orleans' first public university " which made a college degree truly affordable to generations of local high school graduates " became a wellspring for the area's middle class.
UNO today is such a local mainstay that it may be difficult for some to imagine the university's early struggles. Indeed, significant elements within the local establishment never wanted the university to get off the ground, and some continued to fight UNO's progress for decades. That UNO not only succeeded in opening its doors but also blossomed into one of the nation's leading urban campuses is a tribute to the school's founding chancellor, Dr. Homer L. Hitt, who died last week at the age of 91. For several generations of students and faculty members, Dr. Hitt will be remembered as the Father of UNO, an honor he richly deserves.
Dr. Hitt led UNO from 1958 until 1980, during which time he laid the groundwork for the university's success in academics as well as athletics. A Harvard-educated sociologist, Dr. Hitt built UNO literally from the ground up on the site of an abandoned naval air station leased from the Orleans Levee District. In the early days, many of the classes were taught in World War II-era barracks and hangars.
Although then-Gov. Earl K. Long was an ardent supporter of the fledgling campus, Hitt had to fight governors and Legislatures throughout his tenure for even a small share of the state's higher education budget. The state's flagship university, LSU, always seemed to feel threatened by the upstart urban campus, and even today UNO does not get nearly its fair share of state support. Nevertheless, Dr. Hitt was able to recruit top-tier academicians from across the country to UNO, and from the beginning he set the academic bar very high at his school. The late historian Stephen Ambrose is but one example of the many outstanding educators who were drawn to the new school during its infancy and ultimately made their careers there. Homer Hitt was a big part of the reason they came and stayed.
A native of east Texas, Dr. Hitt spoke with a folksy drawl that both disarmed his critics and masked his keen intellect and sharp political skills. In many of his battles with politicians and administrative higher-ups, he quietly enlisted the aid of local media, which frequently rallied behind the university. Despite constantly having to fight for UNO's survival, Dr. Hitt always maintained a calm, gentlemanly demeanor. He never picked a fight, but he never backed down from one if UNO's fortunes were at stake. Through the years, generations of UNO students came to know him as a kind and gentle friend and steadfast intellectual leader who always put their interests first. UNO's founding father left a legacy that will inure to the benefit of many more generations, and he is already sadly missed. What Goes Around The old political adage, 'what goes around comes around," has become an early lesson for Gov. Bobby Jindal. During his campaign for governor last year, Jindal was all too quick to blame other Louisiana politicians for our state's bad reputation. Promising a 'gold standard" in ethics reform, he released a 31-point plan to overhaul most " but not all " aspects of our state's ethics laws. Conspicuously absent from his list of reforms was any mention of campaign finance reform. (See 'Time to Deliver the Goods," Commentary, Jan. 22.)
Now, less than a month into his administration, Jindal has been tagged for failing to follow the existing campaign finance law by not reporting timely an in-kind contribution of more than $118,000 from the Louisiana Republican Party. No doubt hoping to put the matter to rest quickly, Jindal's press secretary said his campaign would pay the maximum fine of $2,500. His operatives blamed the snafu on campaign manager-turned-chief of staff Timmy Teepell, who 'forgot" to tell Jindal's campaign treasurer about the GOP expenditure, which he discussed with party moguls.
We're willing to believe that Teepell forgot, but we haven't forgotten Jindal's campaign pledge of 'zero tolerance" for any ethical lapses by his appointees. He promised to fire anyone who violated ethics laws. Now that what has gone around has come back around, the governor seems to have forgotten his campaign rhetoric. Moreover, state law requires that candidates or individuals responsible for filing the reports " not campaigns " pay ethics fines. Governor Jindal's handling of this budding scandal is not what the law demands, and it's certainly not the 'gold standard" that Candidate Jindal promised us.