Our Views: New reforms for Tulane awards

Politically, a more-than-century-old program of Tulane University is a gift that keeps on giving for members of the Louisiana Legislature.

Sure, students from around the state benefit from the full scholarships granted by the lawmakers, one from each district. The mayor of New Orleans gets five.

If deserving students sometimes get a break, sometimes even financially needy students, that is quite secondary to the political benefits involved.

This is both a lobbying tool for the university and a source of political payola for the legislators. They have little or no other patronage to hand out, but with this a friend’s child — perhaps the son of a contributor, perhaps the daughter of a prominent public official — gets a substantial scholarship. The recipients are apt to be grateful. The legislators are apt to be grateful to the university.

We shall not recite the extensive reporting of the joint investigation of the scholarships by The Advocate and WWL-TV.

We cannot help but notice, though, that reforms back in the 1990s have only partially resolved the concerns with the program.

More thorough reform is needed.

The scholarship program was modified about 20 years ago, restricting gifts to lawmakers’ own relatives.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu and a number of conscientious legislators set up committees to award the scholarships to deserving students, without regard to politics.

One of those lawmakers, Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, said there’s still a considerable traffic in them in the sense of friends and the politically connected seeking the awards.

“Frankly, I would like to see the program eliminated,” Claitor said.

We’ve been through this before, and the Tulane scholarships proved very durable politically, despite the efforts of a young state representative, David Vitter, of Metairie, who raised the ire of many colleagues when he criticized abuses of the scholarships.

The battle did him no long-lasting harm, as he is now a U.S. senator.

If there is a new effort at repeal, we would support that. Short of repeal, the best option would be a Legislative Scholarship that Tulane University would award a deserving student from each district. Students with good grades and, preferably, financial need would get the award; lawmakers could have their picture taken with the winner from their district. The same system would apply to the mayoral scholarships.

In each case, given the diversity of communities covered by 144 representative and Senate districts, Tulane’s student body might be a little more diverse, and the lawmakers still get a modest political benefit, without imputations of improper influence.