La. official leaves with little fanfare

State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell
State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell

Louisiana has been without a top higher education executive for the past two weeks, but not too many people have noticed.

Jim Purcell, the state commissioner of higher education, walked away from his job March 20, making a quiet exit three years after he was brought in to guide the state’s colleges and universities.

His tenure coincided with steep state budget cuts that some say have left postsecondary education in Louisiana nearly crippled.

His exit was so low-key that a number of lawmakers, including a few who sit on the Legislature’s education committees, didn’t immediately know he was gone.

Purcell’s decision not to seek a new contract wasn’t exactly a surprise. It is well known throughout the State Capitol that Purcell’s relationship with Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration was shaky. Upset about Purcell harping over budget cuts, the governor’s staff unsuccessfully tried to get him fired last year.

That effort failed after a group of Republican legislators came to Purcell’s defense, and the state Board of Regents ultimately decided to support its employee.

An Alabama native who has held administrative positions throughout the South, Purcell will likely be remembered as someone who was excellent on policy but needed work on politics.

State Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, and member of the House Education Committee, said it would be unfortunate if Purcell is remembered as the commissioner who was in place when Jindal and the Legislature stripped higher education of $700 million in state funding.

“He didn’t advocate for the cuts; he fought them ... He spoke out when other people were getting fired for doing so,” Edwards said. “Maybe he wasn’t transformational, but we don’t know what he could’ve been. The reality of the situation required him to spend all of his time thinking about how to deal with budget cuts, rather than thinking of new strategies.”

State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, also is a member of the House Education Committee. She described Purcell as someone who came in and took seriously the task of distributing higher education dollars among the state’s four college and university systems.

She said Purcell did it impartially and based on performance. She also credited Purcell with working to strengthen the state’s community and technical colleges — recognizing the need to prepare students for the workforce or to get them ready to transfer to a four-year campus.

But Smith recognized that Purcell’s ideas didn’t gain much traction with the Legislature.

“He had a vision, but a lot of the things he proposed didn’t go anywhere. He didn’t have the backing of the administration,” she said. “I think he recognized it was time for him to move on. I’m sorry to see him go.”

As commissioner of higher education, Purcell’s job was to work with the state Board of Regents to guide higher education policy in the state. During his time in Louisiana, Purcell proposed a number of ideas, mostly centered around giving colleges and universities more authority to operate like businesses.

However, those ideas died when presented to a Legislature that has been historically reluctant to give up some of its control over higher education — namely the power to set tuition.

“Keep in mind, my job was to speak for the board. The board felt that funding was the biggest issue,” Purcell said from the Regents headquarters during his last week in Baton Rouge. “Over time, you have to get people to understand what the issues are. It may take more than one session.”

Sitting in the nearly empty corner office he’s occupied for the past three years, Purcell said he’s happy with the job he’s done in Louisiana, including more strongly linking a school’s share of state funding with their performance, expanding opportunities for adults to return to college and getting institutions to place increased emphasis on workforce development.

Despite growing class sizes, declining research funding from the federal government and significant staff turnover, Purcell said there is still hope for Louisiana’s colleges and universities.

“It will take strong support from the Legislature and the governor for the next several (legislative) sessions before our institutions are back in a position to compete nationally,” he said.

Purcell said he believes he will be remembered in Louisiana for bringing some stability back to a higher education community that had become too politicized and was suffering from poor public perception.

“Everybody agreed when I came on that they wanted to have some stability, the perception of Regents was declining,” he said. “We’ve regained some of our credibility with the public and the Legislature. I think I’ve done what they’ve asked me to do.”

Purcell said his plan is to move back to his home state of Alabama to spend time with his family while he considers different opportunities. He said he’s not in a rush to find his next job.

He was hired in 2011, during a time when the Legislature wanted to have more control over the commissioner of higher education position. The Regents invited controversy a year earlier over the one-day retiring and rehiring of former Commissioner Sally Clausen that gave her a nearly $90,000 lump payment in accrued vacation and sick leave time.

Around the same time, the Legislature passed new laws requiring Senate confirmation for the commissioner position and salary approval from the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget.

As a result, Purcell was approved at a $275,000 salary — much lower than his predecessor’s $425,000 pay package.

A number of people in the Legislature have conceded that the new restrictions and relatively low salary will now scare away the best candidates. State Sen. Conrad Appel, a Metairie Republican and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, has filed a bill that would roll back those restrictions.

Regents Chairman W. Clinton “Bubba” Rasberry said the goal is to have a new commissioner in place by late summer or early fall. He said they probably will have to lure someone away from their existing job.

“We’re looking for someone with maturity, seasoning and someone who is a veteran of the higher education game,” Rasberry said. “We also need a person who is not afraid of a challenge, because he or she will have one.”