Southern board asked to get active in Legislature

Advocate staff photo by JOHN OUBRE -- Southern University board members discuss a range of issues Friday. From left, Murphy Bell, Darren Mire, Mike Small, Chief of Staff Evola Bates Southern System President Ronald Mason, Board Chairman Bridget Dinvaut, the Rev. Joe Gant, Executive Assistant Henrietta Vessel and Myron Lawson.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN OUBRE -- Southern University board members discuss a range of issues Friday. From left, Murphy Bell, Darren Mire, Mike Small, Chief of Staff Evola Bates Southern System President Ronald Mason, Board Chairman Bridget Dinvaut, the Rev. Joe Gant, Executive Assistant Henrietta Vessel and Myron Lawson.

Louisiana’s top higher education official said the entire postsecondary education community needs to take on a more activist posture with the state Legislature if it wants to keep the state’s colleges and universities whole.

In the first of several planned meetings of its kind, state Commissioner of Education Jim Purcell, on Friday, told the Southern University Board of Supervisors its influence at the State Capitol is especially critical this year.

“In the last five years, higher education has been cut 51 percent” in its share of state general fund dollars, Purcell told Southern’s board members. “A lot of bills impact whether we’ll be able to keep our operation intact.”

He pointed to Senate Bill 16 sponsored by state Sen. Gerald Long, R-Winnfield, as an example of where support is needed.

The bill would give higher education employees some relief from the unintended consequences of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s pension plan for new employee hires.

Under the governor’s plan, the employer contribution would drop to 1.8 percent, instead of today’s 5.7 percent rate. SB16 would retain the higher rate.

Purcell, along with top administrators from the LSU, Southern University and the University of Louisiana systems have all spoken out against the impact of the governor’s 401 (k)-type plan.

Purcell on Friday reiterated his position, saying the governor’s plan would make it extremely difficult to attract talented faculty to the state.

Purcell also spoke about House Bill 194, a proposal sponsored by state Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans.

The bill would give the management boards overseeing Louisiana’s four public college and university systems the authority to raise tuition.

A 1995 state constitutional provision, approved by voters, requires a two-thirds vote by the Legislature before a fee charged by a public agency can be increased.

A 1995 attorney general’s opinion determined that tuition falls under the category of a fee, meaning Louisiana has the distinction of being the only state that requires two-thirds legislative approval of tuition increases.

Higher education leaders have been trying to loosen the Legislature’s grip on tuition for years. Their concern has been heightened recently as Louisiana’s public colleges have lost nearly $650 million in state funding since 2008.

HB194 would also allow institutions to charge higher tuition for the most in-demand courses.

Higher education leaders have been calling on the state to adopt differential tuition going back several years. Degrees in the sciences generally cost universities more to offer than liberal arts degrees. The thinking is that students also would be willing to pay more for high-demand degrees such as business administration and civil engineering because of the potential for a lucrative payday after graduating.

In wrapping up his presentation to the Southern board, Purcell told board members their input with legislators is necessary.

“I come to you seeking your activism,” he said.

Southern University President Ronald Mason also urged his board to get active calling the current legislative session “a real volatile situation.”

“Our worst-case scenario is their best-case scenario in the Legislature,” he said. “We need a unified effort.”