University Mergers a Hard Sell
By David Harrison, Staff Writer
Like much of New Orleans, the two schools have struggled to recover from Hurricane Katrina. Their enrollments dipped and their graduation rates remain stubbornly low, less than 21 percent for UNO and around 8 percent for SUNO. Some buildings on Southern University's campus, including the library, are still unusable five years after the storm.
Faced with the task of trying to support two struggling public universities at a time when the state is grappling with a $1.6 billion budget shortfall, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal suggested last month that the two schools be merged. He asked the state Board of Regents to prepare a study of the idea. According to the governor, combining the schools and collaborating more with the nearby Delgado Community College would allow them to place more focus on their academics. "Both UNO and SUNO are under-enrolled and have empty classroom while Delgado is struggling to meet the needs of the community with its limited space," Jindal said in a statement .
Jindal's suggestion has sparked a fierce controversy in New Orleans, particularly because the historically black Southern University would be folded into the much larger University of New Orleans. State Representative Austin Badon, a graduate of UNO and an employee of SUNO who chairs the Education Committee in the Louisiana House, says the proposal struck many African-American residents like him as "an attack on our very well-being."
Talk of merging or closing public universities to save money is gaining steam across the country as states face the fourth year in a row of mind-numbing budget deficits. In several Southern states — where the bulk of the nation's historically black colleges and universities are located — governors have targeted the schools for mergers, a development that rankles the schools' advocates.
In 2009, Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi suggested merging the state's three historically black colleges and universities into one, a proposal that he said would save about $35 million a year. The same year, a Georgia lawmaker unveiled a plan to merge two historically black institutions with predominantly white schools. Faced with passionate opposition, both proposals have been dropped for now.
Now, Jindal is taking up the issue. The idea has failed in Louisiana before, however. In 2006, a plan to combine UNO and SUNO was abandoned when a report by the state's Board of Regents found that the schools serve different missions and recommended that both stay open. Merging the schools would require a two-thirds vote in both the state House and Senate.
A product of segregation
Historically black universities date from the era of segregated schools, a time when educators created parallel universities for black students shut out of white schools. Today, some see this duplication as an anachronism and a stinging reminder of a segregated past. But as a group, historically black institutions have a good track record of sending their students to graduate and professional programs, says Marybeth Gasman, an associate professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied them extensively. "If you're going to get rid of a black college, why not get rid of a white institution?" Gasman says. "They both have a history of segregation."
Other states are considering merging schools, whether historically black or not. In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie has proposed merging two branches of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey into Rutgers University. In Texas, House lawmakers want to close four community colleges. The chancellor of the State University of New York recently proposed consolidating administrative functions across campuses.
Although comprehensive statistics on public university mergers are difficult to come by, there are some recent examples. West Virginia Institute of Technology became a branch of West Virginia University in 2007. The University of Toledo and the Medical College of Ohio joined forces in 2006. And earlier this month, the University of Massachusetts finalized a takeover of the Southern New England School of Law, creating the state's first public law school.
One of the most high-profile mergers involving an historically black institution dates to 1979. A majority-white branch campus of the University of Tennessee in Nashville merged with the historically black Tennessee State University. That process was marked by years of litigation.
Still, it's relatively rare for public schools to merge or close, even in times of fiscal difficulty. Many proposals, such as the ones in Mississippi and Georgia, are quietly abandoned because opposition is so intense.
"A lot of energy can be wasted on restructuring proposals and merger proposals," says Rich Novak, vice president of the Association of Governing Boards, which represents university boards. "In terms of political capital, in terms of effort, in terms of sometimes grinding the wheels to a halt, it isn't really worth it."
At the same time, merging schools does not guarantee a cost savings, says James Samels, co-author of "Merging Colleges for Mutual Growth." Samels says successful mergers tend to be the ones undertaken for academic reasons, rather than financial ones. It's better if the schools involved plan their own mergers and look for ways to share resources and build complimentary programs, he says.
Almost any institution that has been around long enough to produce a generation of graduates can count on marshalling the resistance of those who do not want to see their alma maters dismantled.
At the same time, it's not easy for policymakers to reconcile school closings with the Obama administration's emphasis on making higher education more accessible. "There still is this push that the way out of the economic recession is through higher education," says Novak. "You don't get there by closing campuses."
That might explain the strategy employed by two new governors, Jerry Brown of California and Brian Sandoval of Nevada. Rather than merging campuses, Brown and Sandoval have proposed drastically cutting back on state aid and forcing universities to raise tuition. Novak expects similar proposals to become more common.
"Before merging and closing [universities]," he says, "we'll see deregulating and freeing them up from state bureaucracy and giving them more operational control."
In Louisiana, the state enacted a measure last year that would allow colleges and universities to raise tuition in exchange for meeting certain benchmarks such as higher graduation rates. Jindal also has proposed giving universities more flexibility as well as consolidating the state's five university governing boards into one.
Badon says he would be willing to explore comprehensive reforms to higher education rather than "bullying" two smaller schools into a merger. Badon stresses that any reform should not exempt Louisiana State University, the state's flagship school, although he also acknowledges that LSU's popularity across Louisiana would make it the most politically fraught institution to try to change.
"If [Jindal] wants to do reform let's do reform for all higher education," Badon says. "But he will never say, 'Let's do reform for the beloved LSU Fighting Tigers. Let's merge them with another school.' That would never happen."