Debate is heating up in New Orleans, as Louisiana’s governor seeks to merge the city's sole historically Black state-funded university with a mostly White, nearby institution in an effort he said to improve both schools’ educational conditions.
According to the Associated Press, Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, is pushing a bill that would merge predominately-Black Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO) with the University of New Orleans.
Campuses of both higher education facilities, which are in close proximity to each other, were severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In the storm’s aftermath, enrollment and graduation rates at both schools plummeted, particularly at Southern University whose graduation rate has significantly dropped.
According to 2011 U.S. Department of Education figures, SUNO’s rate of graduation for students attending over a six-year period, rose to eight percent from the post-Katrina low of five percent, the lowest in the state and among the lowest for a public historically black college or university (HBCU) in the country.
The six-year graduation rate at the University of New Orleans (UNO) is 21 percent.
The graduation rate at Tulane University in New Orleans is 73 percent. The graduation rate at Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana is 62 percent, and 59 percent at Loyola University and the Louisiana State University campus at Baton Rouge, La., according to state figures.
“It makes no sense to have colleges blocks apart, neither one of them with graduation rates we can accept,” Jindal said at a weekly legislative news conference in Baton Rouge, La. according to the AP.
Meanwhile, more than 200 Southern University supporters gathered to protest the proposal, which they believe would cause the school to lose its legacy as an HBCU.
“It will be the death of SUNO,” student government vice president Ellis Brent Jr. told the AP.
Southern University students have filed a complaint with the Department of Justice, claiming that the state proposal discriminates against minorities.
The proposal comes as Louisiana faces a $1.6 billion budget shortfall , but state officials insist that the merger is designed to improve education, not just to save money.
“This is not necessarily about merging,” Republican state Sen. Conrad Appel, the writer of the bill, told New Orleans CBS affiliate WWL-TV. “This is about the restructuring of a system of delivery of higher education services for the public sector in New Orleans.”
Supporters of the bill believe its passage would be extremely difficult, as both the Black and Democratic Caucuses oppose it.
“I will speak against it, I will vote against it, this is something that is not good for African Americans, it's not good for the identity of UNO, and it's not good for New Orleans,” Democratic Rep. Austin Badon told WWL-TV.
In March, Louisiana's Board of Regents education board proposed a consolidation between the two schools that was milder than the full-blown merger. Their plan called for the creation of a university that would be two separate academic institutions run under a single administrative system..
If the merger doesn't pass during this state legislature session, WWL-TV political analyst Clancy DuBos said Jindal will use it as an issue during his campaign for re-election this fall.