Members of a panel that oversees Louisiana’s colleges and universities gave embattled state Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell a glowing performance review Wednesday.
Gov. Bobby Jindal is widely believed to have reached out to Board of Regents members last month in an attempt to get Purcell fired for speaking out against the governor’s proposed budget to fund higher education next year. A group of legislators, led by state Rep. Cameron Henry, R-New Orleans, issued a statement condemning the Jindal administration for trying to fire Purcell and calling on the governor to apologize to the Board of Regents.
Purcell also drew the wrath of the Jindal administration when he praised the governor’s efforts in bringing a diverse group of businesses to the state, but cautioned that state budget cuts to higher education — nearly $650 million since 2008 — are hurting institutions’ ability to produce workers to fill those new jobs.
Members of the state Board of Regents offered measured support for Purcell after the flap went public in late March. Several acknowledged that the governor felt Purcell was being too negative in his remarks about the state of Louisiana’s higher education system and was not emphasizing the positives.
Wednesday’s Regents meeting was different.
Dr. Albert Sam, chairman of the board’s Personnel Committee, effusively praised Purcell following a closed-door session where regents discussed the commissioner’s job performance. Sam said Purcell had received “stellar” reviews from both internal and external sources during an evaluation.
“I anticipate he’ll be at the helm for a very long time,” Sam said. “We look forward to working with him for a very, very long time.”
The apparent conflict between the two sides started over concerns Purcell raised about Jindal’s $24.7 billion spending plan for the 2013-14 fiscal year.
Jindal’s budget relied heavily on one-time, or nonrecurring, funds that likely won’t be available next year and contingency money from property sales and lawsuit settlements that may or may not materialize this year.
Should any of those contingency dollars fail to show up, the governor’s budget calls for higher education funding to be cut the corresponding amount.
Talk that Jindal tried to get Purcell fired prompted a group of Republican state representatives, led by Henry, to release a statement criticizing the governor’s perceived tactics. The legislators said they had “reliable” information that Jindal sent his Deputy Chief of Staff Taylor Teepell to drum up support among regents to get rid of Purcell.
“He shouldn’t be in the business of trying to fire people for telling the truth,” Henry said.
State Rep. Brett Geymann, R-Lake Charles, agreed.
“We’ll have plenty of disagreements with Purcell over policy, but we don’t think it’s right that Purcell is not able to present his concerns over budget issues without being pressured and intimidated. We just don’t think that it’s right,” Geymann said.