Higher ed chief plans to leave post

The head of policy for the state’s public colleges and universities announced Wednesday that he won’t seek to have his contract renewed when it expires in March.

Jim Purcell has been Louisiana’s commissioner of higher education since February 2011. He made the announcement during a meeting of the Board of Regents.

Purcell left the meeting as Regents board members went into a closed-door session to decide what steps they’ll take to find Purcell’s replacement.

“I’ve been wanting to look at other options,” Purcell said as he left the meeting. “We’ve done great work here. It was time to look at other things.”

Purcell’s impending departure could hardly be called a surprise. Just last month, he was named a finalist to lead Florida’s four-year universities, a position he ultimately did not get.

Regents Assistant Commissioner for Public Affairs Katara Williams said Purcell’s Wednesday announcement was about timing.

Announcing his departure with three months left on his contract gives the Regents time to find a successor before the legislative session starts on March 10.

Purcell’s tenure in Louisiana has been characterized by a period of extreme financial distress.

Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature have stripped $700 million in state funds from Louisiana’s colleges and universities since 2008 in order to keep the state budget balanced year after year. The governor, in a prepared statement, responded Wednesday by pointing out the state’s graduation rates improved over the same time period, with LSU reaching a record high of 67 percent last year, up from 58 percent in 2008.

Purcell and some Regents members have been outspoken critics of the budget cuts, continually making the case to state legislators that stable funding is paramount to the success of Louisiana’s network of colleges and universities.

While Purcell often praised the governor’s efforts in bringing a diverse group of businesses to the state, he also cautioned that the budget cuts are hurting institutions’ ability to produce workers to fill those new jobs.

Those types of remarks are widely believed to have drawn the ire of the Jindal administration.

A group of Republican lawmakers in March accused the Jindal administration of trying to secretly have Purcell fired for speaking out against a budget plan the governor proposed near the beginning of the year.

The legislators said they had reliable information that Jindal sent his Deputy Chief of Staff Taylor Teepell to talk to members of the Louisiana Board of Regents, the state’s higher-education policy board, about having Purcell fired.

In response, the legislators led by state Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, put out a statement condemning the Jindal administration and calling on the governor to apologize to the Board of Regents. At the time, Henry said he and his colleagues felt compelled to say something considering what they described as the governor’s pattern of intimidating people who don’t agree with him.

About a month later, the Regents gave Purcell a glowing performance review.

Wednesday evening, Jindal released a short statement on Purcell. “We wish Jim the best. We’re proud of the fact that student outcomes have been on the rise over the past five years,” the statement said.

In an email last month, Purcell let his staff know that he is pursuing other jobs, telling them his decision “to look at other employment opportunities was not taken lightly.”

“I am enjoying my LA BoR experience, and I think we are doing good work together; however, on occasion I am made aware of job opportunities that piqued my interest,” Purcell wrote in November to his staff. “We are all in pursuit of the American Dream. I hope that you can support me in this endeavor.”