Sunday, May 15, 2011

End of an HBCU: Southern University at New Orleans closer to being merged with University of New Orleans

A bill to merge the University of New Orleans and Southern University at New Orleans continued moving through the Legislature on May 9, 2011 when a second House committee gave its approval despite uncertainty about how much it will cost the state.

A second House committee has approved a bill to merge Southern University at New Orleans and the University of New Orleans.

The House Appropriations Committee voted 17-4 to send House Bill 537 by Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Algiers, to the floor, where passage requires a two-thirds supermajority. That debate could occur as early as this week.

The bill would combine SUNO and UNO starting in 2013 to create the University of Louisiana at New Orleans, which would be part of the University of Louisiana System. The school would consist of two colleges with different degree programs and entrance requirements, and would provide remedial education through a collaboration with Delgado Community College.

"It will be the death of SUNO," student government vice president Ellis Brent Jr. said recently as he worked on a letter-writing campaign in hopes of killing the idea in an upcoming legislative session.

Jindal's proposal renews a politically and racially charged argument that pops up periodically in the roughly 20 states that have public, four-year institutions known as historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs.

"Every time the economy tanks, and certainly, right now, these are dire economic times, understandably governments and legislatures look for ways of cutting costs while maintaining and increasing a level of educational excellence," said Lezli Baskerville, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education. "We certainly applaud and salute that.

"The challenge comes when there are broad and diverse options and the first option appears to be 'let's look at submerging HBCUs into the historically white college and university system.'" Jindal is adamant. "It makes no sense to have colleges blocks apart, neither one of them with graduation rates we can accept," he said Tuesday at his weekly legislative news conference in Baton Rouge. At the same time, more than 200 SUNO supporters were gathering on the Capitol steps to protest the merger.

Students have filed a complaint with the Department of Justice over the merger, saying the state has discriminated against minority students and the faculty.

Jindal insists his proposal is about improving education, not saving money. Unveiled in January, it comes a little more than five years after both campuses were badly damaged when levees breached during Katrina and much of the city flooded. Lower post-Katrina enrollment and low graduation rates plague both schools, especially SUNO, where the percentage of students who graduate within six years is less than 8 percent.

A SUNO-UNO consolidation proposal adopted in March by Louisiana's top higher education board, the Board of Regents, involved something less than a full-blown merger.

Based on a consultant's recommendation, it called for creation of a "University of Greater New Orleans" encompassing a consolidated administrative system running both an "urban research university" with tougher admission standards and a "Metropolitan University" having, in the consultants' words "a special role (and obligation) in serving the African-American citizens of the Greater New Orleans Region." It also would keep the schools with separate academic officers and accreditations.

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