An unexpected bizarre series of recent events has some legislators and LSU supporters fearing that Gov. Kathleen Blanco will try to strengthen the UL System by siphoning schools away from the LSU System.
From the moment Kathleen Blanco was elected in 2003, LSU supporters feared the new governor and her husband, Raymond, would attempt to strengthen the University of Louisiana System ' anchored by their hometown UL Lafayette ' at the expense of LSU and its 10-campus system.
When a bizarre series of events began playing out in recent months, the possibility of an LSU/UL system reorganization moved to the front burner. Reorganizing the state's bloated higher education system has been discussed for decades, but post-Katrina economic realities have cast a more urgent light on the topic. Among the proposals ' though nothing has been formalized ' is moving three LSU System campuses, including the University of New Orleans, to the UL System.
Then came the stunning announcement in March from William Jenkins that he was resigning as LSU System president. Several officials privately say a faction of the LSU Board of Supervisors, led by Chairman Bernie Boudreaux, pressured Jenkins to depart. Meanwhile, two state senators rushed to the microphones to link the resignation to Jenkins' opposition to the proposed removal of UNO from the LSU System.
What followed was a bombshell by Oakridge Republican Sen. Robert Barham and others, who alleged Boudreaux essentially rigged the selection committee to ensure UL System President Sally Clausen, also Boudreaux's girlfriend, would replace Jenkins.
Under intense media criticism, Boudreaux first denied any wrongdoing, then announced the selection committee would be expanded, and finally last month resigned from the board, saying he hoped his departure would quell the controversy. Among those applauding the move was Gov. Blanco, who said, "He put himself and the university in a tenuous posture. He made a good decision."
Through all the upheaval no one has linked Blanco or her husband, vice president of student affairs at UL Lafayette, to the upheaval. About as far as anyone is willing to go is to say: After Blanco's eight appointments to LSU's board next month, 13 of the 16 members (one is a student) will be her selections. And in a state where political appointees tend to follow the whims of those who put them in power, LSU supporters are wondering about Blanco's intentions.
"I can't say their fingerprints are here," says Sen. Robert Adley, a Benton Democrat. "But I can say this: Her fingerprints are going to be very clear, because she's got eight [more] appointments on that board."
Former state legislator and UL supporter Ron Gomez sees more LSU paranoia than any real threat ' whether it's directly related to an effort to pump up UL or the education system, which, in typical Louisiana fashion, has become the post-Katrina "whipping boy."
"I can't see any great advantage [from moving any of the three campuses into the UL System], as far as UL Lafayette is concerned," Gomez says.
Still, some see getting a respected university like UNO into the UL System as the home cooking UL's been hoping for since Blanco took office.
The latest round of speculation was triggered by Blanco's post-Katrina decision to slash $71.4 million from the budgets of public colleges and universities ' the largest cut absorbed by any state agency. (UNO Chancellor Tim Ryan says UNO took the biggest hit.) The harshness of the fiscal axe prompted university leaders, led by E. Joseph Savoie, a former UL alumni director and administrator and the state's higher education commissioner, to seriously re-examine streamlining and reforming higher education.
Merging Louisiana Tech and LSU-Shreveport with the LSU Health Sciences Center in Shreveport was one of the ideas under consideration. But the discussions that ignited the current firestorm took place at a number of separate meetings between Jenkins, Boudreaux, Savoie and the chancellors of UNO, LSU-Eunice and LSU-Alexandria regarding the possibility of transferring the three institutions to the UL System.
Jenkins says realigning or downsizing the LSU System isn't necessarily a bad thing, and could be good for the state and LSU. The LSU System was in financial trouble before Katrina, but the post-storm fallout has turned the situation bleak. LSU's Health Care Services Division needed a last-minute financial bailout from the state to remain open. The Ag Center ' in part so it can fire tenured faculty while refocusing its mission ' and UNO are seeking bankruptcy protection. Officials at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center complain they need an additional $25 million in funding, a shortfall that has forced the understaffed center to turn down lucrative federal research grants.
Jenkins, who isn't alone in suggesting the unloading of a campus or two could be a positive move for LSU, stresses no changes should take place without a thorough analysis and debate over the likely impact. For now, the fear realignment or downsizing will be done for the wrong reason is the biggest concern for LSU supporters.
Any movement of institutions would have to be approved by the Louisiana Board of Regents and the Legislature, and any significant reorganization of post-secondary education might be a longshot given Louisiana's fierce political battleground.
Sen. Jay Dardenne thinks the LSU System should consider jettisoning LSU-A and LSU-E, arguing those schools are more akin to institutions in other systems. "That's not necessarily a bad thing," he says. "I don't think we ought to fear that discussion." Dardenne draws the line at UNO, however, and suspects Jenkins clashed with board members over the issue. Dardenne doesn't like proposals to move the university ' hit hard by Katrina ' into the UL System. "UNO has a very extensive research-based budget that I do not think ought to leave the LSU System," Dardenne says. "It would hurt the LSU System, and it could also hurt LSU's flagship status."
Ryan says UNO takes in about $35 million annually in outside grant and contract research monies (plus more than $20 million that's handled by the UNO Foundation), which he says would follow UNO, making it unlikely carving out his campus would financially benefit the LSU System.
LSU-A Chancellor Robert Cavanaugh opposes moving to the UL System mainly for historical reasons and because no one has shown how it will save the state money. LSU-E's William Nunez just flat out doesn't want to lose the LSU flag.
Ryan, however, doesn't see what all the fuss is about. He says UNO is a "damn good" university that will stay focused on its mission regardless of which system it's in. "Systems are just management entities. They're not funding boards," he says. "Part of it is the perception people have in their minds that the systems are quality-based [or tiered], but that's not the reality." He also views UL Lafayette as a high-end research-oriented institution much like UNO.
Whatever the case, Dardenne says Jenkins' departure comes at a very bad time. "The last thing we need right now is instability in the LSU System that has now been created as a result of what has happened to Dr. Jenkins."
Replacing Jenkins will be a chore. Qualified candidates are in extremely short supply; LSU's countless post-Katrina woes have made the job that much less appealing, and the tainted appearance ' deserved or not ' surrounding the search process may cause potential candidates to take a pass.
Dardenne sees no evidence of a concerted movement to unseat LSU's prominence, though he does believe LSU's flagship agenda and higher education in general has lost momentum under Blanco's administration, which he says has an incredibly strong southwest Louisiana bent. "[LSU] was the driving force in the previous eight years of trying to define the new Louisiana, and it does not seem to have the same level of priority with this governor and this Legislature."
Both Adley and Lafayette Republican Sen. Mike Michot suggest Blanco's upcoming board selections may be telling, which is why Adley hopes the appointments are made in time for the board members to be approved by the Senate during this regular session, which ends mid-June. At the very least, it's expected Boudreaux's replacement, Rod West of New Orleans, will be reappointed to the board because he is close to Blanco.
Blanco's office has declined to say who is under consideration or when she'll make the appointments.
Jack Andonie, a retired physician from Metairie finishing his third six-year term on the LSU board, says at least two of Blanco's appointments, James P. Roy of Lafayette and Dorothy "Dottie" Reese of New Orleans, "bleed purple and gold." While Roy may be a Tiger at heart, he's also law partner to Bob Wright, a staunch Democrat and longtime Blanco supporter. Roy replaced Acadiana venture capitalist/investor Billy Rucks, a Foster appointee. Blanco also appointed her first cousin, businessman Jerry Shea of New Iberia, to the board; he is now chairman-elect.
For his part, Andonie opposes removing any campuses from the LSU System. "Without any question, we're better off with them," he says. "LSU should be able as the flagship university to be able to have sister institutions that can help to bring up the standards of education in entire parts of the state."
Barham, the state senator who first trumpeted the notion Jenkins was being forced out of a job in part because of the UNO fight, says LSU's flagship university status isn't embraced by an Acadiana faction.
"There is a group of people I am convinced ' and I'm not pointing the finger at anybody ' who believes Louisiana's approach with a flagship university is not the best. Primarily these folks are associated with UL [Lafayette]. They want Lafayette to be the University of Louisiana. And they believe it would be better to have a dual system in Louisiana." Such a scenario, claims Barham, would "guarantee mediocrity at best."
Barham's fine with discussing better ways to deliver and pay for higher education, but he warns members of the UL and LSU boards that decisions on realignment won't be allowed to take place ' if they even take place ' under the public radar. "Is this just about a better delivery of education? Is there something more here that we need to see?" asks Barham. "I'm not saying there is. But it certainly gives you pause to examine it with a different view."
As for the controversy his departure was tied to a fight over UNO, Jenkins says aside from the LSU-S study, the conversation never got beyond generic what-ifs and preliminary discussions with the chancellors. "There's almost a hypersensitivity about that very issue and about the potential mergers and rearrangements of the respective systems," says Jenkins. "But that's not where this should be. I'm giving you the honest and frank Jenkins' opinion about this."
Jenkins isn't necessarily opposed to reorganizing the state's post-secondary education system ' as long as the reorganization is preceded by careful deliberation, based on consensus and results in something better.
"I'm not averse to looking at the rearrangement or redirection of institutions," Jenkins says. "How that is done, and the process, this has to be reflective and not reflexive."
Jenkins feels UNO's natural home is within the LSU System but hints it may be worth looking at whether LSU-A and LSU-E are better suited to other systems. Jenkins doesn't buy Savoie's suggestion that a stripped down LSU System could be beneficial because it allows the Baton Rouge campus to focus on its flagship agenda.
The governor's office also dismisses suggestions it's somehow complicit in a power struggle between the UL and LSU systems. Blanco left it to spokeswoman Denise Bottcher to address the issue, saying LSU gets the lion's share of state higher education funding each year, while Blanco has stated publicly LSU is Louisiana's sole flagship university.
"I think the governor's commitment is to continue to keep LSU as the flagship university, and I think her record has shown that," Bottcher adds.
The spokeswoman says the governor maintains that the Board of Regents should steer the direction of reforms. The board is in the midst of developing a new master plan, and Commissioner Savoie says everything is on the table.
With the governor's husband part of UL Lafayette's administration, charges of bias are inevitable, Bottcher says. Raymond "Coach" Blanco did not return messages left at his UL office.
Eva Klein, the Virginia-based consultant hired for the LSU-S study, says it's reasonable for the state to take a hard look at whether there's a better way to organize and allocate money for higher education. Panic on university campuses, she adds, is an inevitable by-product of such introspection, since everyone's worried about losing their piece of the pie.
"It comes out looking like a turf war, but it really is a legitimate fight for survival, because the institutions don't have enough resources, and the possibility of losing them becomes a legitimate survival question, or at a minimum a quality question," Klein says.
Ethel farmer Ronald Anderson, president of the Louisiana Farm Bureau Foundation and an LSU board member for nearly nine years (his term expires June 1), has doubts about the recent fascination for replumbing postsecondary education. Just moving institutions from one system to another won't change the state's obligation to fund them, he argues.
"Somebody's going to have to convince me that there's a need to do that ' that there's a financial benefit or a benefit to the students or user groups in the areas where these campuses are," Anderson says. "At this point, it's going to have to be a really good sell job to get me convinced that we really need to do any of that."
Outgoing LSU System President Bill Jenkins, 69, supposedly just got "tired" and is happy to retire gracefully. Was he, in fact, pushed out by a faction of the LSU Board led by Chairman Bernie Boudreaux ' who favored girlfriend (and UL System head) Sally Clausen for the job ' or for his supposed opposition to the removal of UNO from the LSU System?
Ex-LSU Board of Supervisors Chairman Bernie Boudreaux, prior to his sudden departure in early March, was accused by state Sen. Robert Barham and others of pulling strings to maneuver girlfriend Clausen into the president's position. He is also believed to favor the transfer of three LSU campuses, including UNO, into the UL System.
Sally Clausen, the darling of blundering Boudreaux, has so far remained mum. Had Boudreaux stayed as chairman, with his influence, could she have become a viable contender for the LSU System president? Sadly for her, in any other circumstance her impressive credentials would have made her an attractive candidate.
Sens. Robert Adley and Robert Barham were quick to expose the Boudreaux-Clausen relationship and have remained vocal about protecting the LSU System. They're carefully waiting to see who Gov. Blanco appoints to the eight LSU System board seats.
Gov. Kathleen Blanco will control 13 of 16 LSU System board members after making her next eight appointments.
Raymond "Coach" Blanco serves as UL's vice president of student affairs. The former Ragin' Cajun football coach likely never got over LSU's objections in the 1980s to USL's desire to change its name.
Along with Boudreaux, E. Joseph Savoie, state commissioner of higher education and former UL Lafayette administrator, supports the need to reform the state's higher education system. Savoie has been involved in discussions about moving UNO, LSU-Eunice and LSU-Alexandria to the UL System. Long considered a possible replacement to UL Lafayette President Ray Authement, Savoie strongly denies any bias, but insiders say he'd like to see some balance between the LSU and UL systems.
Rod West, Boudreaux's replacement, hails from New Orleans. As Blanco's friend, he's likely to be reappointed either to fulfill Boudreaux's at-large seat, which expires in 2010, or to another full six-year term. Could his ties to the Crescent City prompt him to support keeping UNO within the LSU System?
- additional reporting by Leslie Turk