Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, on Tuesday ordered a study of the feasibility of merging two neighboring New Orleans universities that have both struggled to fill classrooms and graduate students. A combined institution might provide stronger services to the students of the universities and of another nearby institution, Delgado Community College, which lacks space for all of its students, the governor said.
Governor Jindal's statement only alluded, however, to the issue of race. He is proposing to merge historically black Southern University at New Orleans with the predominantly white University of New Orleans. Further, the governor wants to study the idea of placing the new institution in the University of Louisiana System, which oversees regional state universities. Currently, UNO is part of the Louisiana State University System and SUNO is part of the historically black Southern University System. So in a formerly segregated state, the proposal would not only merge a black college with a predominantly white one, but would remove one of the three campuses of a historically black university system.
The governor made the proposal on a day that Ronald Mason Jr., president of the Southern system, was at an out-of-state speaking engagement. He released a statement late Tuesday saying he was "shocked" by the plan. "The Southern University SYSTEM is an important entity in the state of Louisiana, and for the past 52 years SUNO has served as a critical component of the Southern University System," said Mason's statement (the all upper case "system" is from his statement). "SUNO will continue to work diligently towards meeting the urban education needs and challenges of the city of New Orleans.”
Mason is unusual among leaders of historically black colleges in that he has argued that some merger plans may enhance historically black institutions. (Generally, advocates for black students and black institutions are dubious of merger plans, which they see as tending to focus on white institutions and white students.) Last year Mason floated another approach to a New Orleans merger -- in which the University of New Orleans would join the Southern system. But that was not the plan proposed by Governor Jindal.
The LSU system released its own statement, which did not suggest opposition to the governor's idea, but also didn't endorse it: "The LSU System is proud of the accomplishments of the University of New Orleans in its 50 year history. It has emerged as a major urban public research university over those years. This success testifies to the commitment of the community of New Orleans; the faculty, staff, students, and alumni of the institution; and the state and donors during this period of growth and development. The LSU System remains firmly engaged in the support of UNO's mission, and will work closely with UNO, its many constituencies, and the Board of Regents on any proposals to strengthen and enhance the effectiveness of this fine institution."
In pushing for a merger, Jindal cited dismal statistics about both New Orleans universities, which have not fully recovered from Katrina or ever been the top dogs in their systems. (Flagship campuses for both LSU and Southern are in Baton Rouge.) The governor said that UNO's six-year graduation rate is 21 percent, while SUNO's rate is 5 percent, although some records indicate that the latter figure has gone up a bit recently. Since 2005, when many people left New Orleans and never came back, UNO has seen its enrollment drop by 32 percent, to 11,700. SUNO's enrollment has fallen by 14 percent, to 3,100. Delgado Community College, in contrast, doesn't have room for all of its would-be students.
Marybeth Gasman, an associate professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania who has written extensively on the history of black colleges, said she didn't dispute Jindal's suggestion that both UNO and SUNO are troubled institutions -- and might be stronger combined. And Gasman said that SUNO has had additional challenges because it must compete with private historically black colleges in New Orleans, Xavier and Dillard Universities.
But Gasman said that, if a merger is the way to go, it shouldn't follow the usual pattern of cutting black institutions. She said that Mason's idea of merging UNO into the Southern system "was truly innovative" and might offer the benefits of combined resources without diminishing the role of black educators and black students.
Typically, governors don't propose moving predominantly white institutions into black systems, but Gasman said that should be as acceptable as the reverse. "If we all advocate for integration, shouldn't that be OK?" she said. "I think Ron Mason's idea was better than the governor's."