Grambling plan has split response

Southern board member Tony Clayton is pursuing a plan to fold Grambling State University into the Southern University system in what he called a cost-saving measure.

It’s a plan that Clayton acknowledges is likely to lead to bitterness among legislators and alumni from both schools. But the former board chairman said he will propose it at the Southern Board of Supervisors meeting on Nov. 23, one day after the annual Bayou Classic football game in New Orleans between Grambling and Southern’s Baton Rouge campus.

“We can save a lot of money, and it just makes sense,” Clayton said.

The proposal calls for Southern and Grambling to collaborate on research initiatives and program offerings.

It would essentially give the Southern system footholds in north and south Louisiana to serve their core constituents — minority students, many of whom come from low- to moderate-income families.

Grambling is part of the University of Louisiana system, which includes Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, the University of New Orleans and five other schools across the state.

Clayton’s plan already has proven divisive, as legislators and school administrators were quick to dismiss the idea late last week, some of them even mocking him for proposing it publicly.

Grambling President Frank G. Pogue Jr. was at the State Capitol on Thursday to discuss next year’s higher education budget with legislators. He called on Clayton to apologize for what he perceived as a slight to his school’s academic achievements.

“He needs to apologize to our faculty, our alumni and any student who hasn’t been born yet who will be coming to Grambling State University someday,” Pogue said. “I have to say I’m completely taken aback.”

State Sen. Rick Gallot, D-Ruston, said Clayton was being “inconsiderate” for proposing his plan publicly without first having discussed it with legislators.

“It’s also irresponsible of him to suggest this at a time when our current governor is intent on starving all of higher education,” he said.

Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature, since 2008, have cut more than $425 million from higher education — $21 million from Southern — to balance state budgets.

State Sen. Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport, a Grambling alum, said his alma mater has nothing in common with the Southern system other than both being recognized as part of the nation’s network of historically black colleges and universities, known as HBCUs.

“What I really think is that Tony Clayton has lost his mind, and I say that even though Tony is a friend of mine,” Tarver said.

“I think he’s just trying to impress someone.”

When asked if he’d discussed the proposal with Jindal or the Louisiana Board of Regents, the state’s higher education policy board, Clayton declined to comment, but said, “this idea came from a conversation I had with a north Louisiana businessman.”

Jindal did not return two requests for comment last week, but his press office emailed, “We’ll support what is in the best interest of students and taxpayers, but we have concerns about any change that is not supported by Grambling or the UL System.”

Despite the criticism from Grambling and others, Clayton said he’ll continue to push his idea.

The plan would allow the two HBCUs to share resources and concentrate on their most successful programs, such as nursing.

Clayton also said his plan would make it easier for the Southern Law Center to open a part-time, evening division in the northern part of the state, which currently doesn’t have a law school.

“We have the same niche; we serve the same types of students,” Clayton said.

“We can share our research capabilities and combine our intellectual brain power to offer programs in energy and nanotechnology. If we do this, we could do a lot of good for Southern and Grambling, and we would save the taxpayers a whole lot of money in the process.”

Grambling would retain its identity, but would be governed by the Southern board, Clayton said.

“Grambling is not a high priority in the UL system,” he said. “They would instantly be a top priority in our system.”

Interim UL system President Tom Layzell bristled at Clayton’s suggestion this week that Grambling sits low on the totem pole.

“Grambling is an important part of our system and should stay a part of our system,” he said.

Layzell said Clayton’s proposal will do little more than incite controversy.

Jindal’s 2011 proposal to merge Southern University at New Orleans with UNO caused bitter fighting in the Legislature before dying for lack of support.

When it failed, the Legislature approved moving UNO from the LSU system into the UL system.

Republican state Sen. Conrad Appel, of Metairie and chair of the Senate Education committee, sponsored legislation in 2011 seeking to merge the two New Orleans universities.

Appel said he doubts the Legislature would have the appetite to take up a similar fight — requiring two-thirds support from the House and Senate — if both schools are not on board.

“I wouldn’t try to jam someone up if they weren’t in agreement,” Appel said.

But state Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, said Clayton’s idea makes sense. Carter chairs the House Education committee.

“I haven’t really had a chance to study it, but if we can do something to improve education and give our youngsters a high-quality education, I think it’s worth studying,” Carter said.

Before Clayton’s plan can make its way to Carter’s committee, it will have to go through the Regents and their Chairman Bob Levy, who said he’d be interested in talking about the proposal, but doesn’t see where the cost savings would come in.

A bigger obstacle for Clayton could be getting his idea past his own board.

Southern system President Ronald Mason and Southern board chair Darren G. Mire both said this week that the university’s focus should be on staying above water in tough economic times.