Financial woes might revive talk of UNO-SUNO merger

Officials grapple with looming cuts

The prospect of steep cuts to state funding for higher education is expected to revive the emotional and racially charged idea of merging the University of New Orleans and Southern University at New Orleans, an initiative that died in the Legislature in 2011 despite strong support from Gov. Bobby Jindal.

State Rep. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, said Friday that he plans to sponsor a bill to merge New Orleans’ two public four-year universities during the legislative session that starts in April.

Connick said the state’s grim financial outlook is “the proper time to make some fundamental changes that would be beneficial in the long run.”

Four years ago, Jindal backed a plan to form the University of Louisiana at New Orleans, which would have included two distinct academic units with separate admission standards and course offerings under the University of Louisiana System.

That plan, sponsored by former state Rep. Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, drew fierce opposition from officials at both universities, as well as alumni and some local government officials.

Now, as state lawmakers face a $1.6 billion gap in the state budget for the next fiscal year, Connick believes the idea is ready for a second chance, particularly as the long-struggling SUNO may fall on even harder times.

University leaders across Louisiana are readying for cuts in state aid ranging from 40 percent to 60 percent as legislators work to close the shortfall.

Jindal is slated to unveil his proposed budget Feb. 27. The anticipated cuts — for the fiscal year beginning July 1 — would come on top of already deep cuts to Louisiana higher education spending in recent years. State aid to universities has fallen by more than half during Jindal’s administration.

“People need to look at it seriously and see if we can consolidate resources and services and save money,” Connick said about the idea of a merger. “It doesn’t make sense to have two separate institutions doing the same thing. Let’s combine them and work together. It’s something that we need to get done in order to survive as a state and to keep higher ed on a high level.”

SUNO Chancellor Victor Ukpolo said Thursday that his school, the city’s only public historically black university, may be forced to close if it’s stripped of half of the $8 million in funding it receives from the state. Such a cut would eat away nearly a quarter of SUNO’s $18 million budget, he said.

“Our budget has been cut almost 60 percent already within the last six years, and we’ve been doing what we can to stay afloat,” Ukpolo said. “But with this situation, I don’t see how we can stay afloat.”’

Ukpolo declined comment Friday on the revival of the merger talk.

UNO President Peter Fos, who took over in 2012, said he’s had “no talk of any merger with anybody” and noted that the idea of a merger is a sensitive subject.

“I’ve had people ask me if there’s a consolidation plan, and there isn’t,” he said. “One of the things that people don’t understand is that I’m not sure the cost of educating a student would change.”

Stricter admission standards that went into effect in the fall have hurt SUNO’s enrollment figures, school officials say.

This spring, SUNO had 2,543 students enrolled. That’s down from 3,094 students last spring and more than 3,640 students before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

UNO enrollment has dipped even more significantly in the past decade, from about 17,000 students before Katrina to 9,234 students last fall.

Fos said Friday that he doesn’t “really see the cost savings” in merging the universities.

“Sometimes you’re trying to take an apple and merge it with an orange, and you don’t get anything that’s good,” he said.

At this point, state Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, said he believes that a lot of the talk on potential school closures or mergers is premature.

“We are a very long way from getting to a position where we need to be talking about closures or anything else,” he said, insisting that lawmakers first need to determine how much money can be generated from other sources — like tuition hikes for some programs or new student fees — to get cash flowing into the schools.

Meanwhile, Appel, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said university leaders should “be thinking seriously about efficiencies in the structure of higher education in Louisiana.”

To that end, Fos said he may move to declare a financial emergency at UNO for the second time in a decade if it is forced to cut a projected $17 million from its budget for the coming academic year. That figure’s at the high end of the range of cuts officials in Jindal’s administration have said the school should expect. It would represent an overall loss of about 17 percent of the school’s funding.

For UNO, declaring what’s known as financial exigency would give administrators the authority to furlough or lay off tenured faculty members, typically with 90 days’ notice. The University of Louisiana System’s board of supervisors would need to sign off on the move by finding that the school doesn’t have enough money to support itself without the ability to make such draconian cuts.

Just six years ago, UNO received $74 million from the state.

The state’s $1.6 billion budget shortfall is largely a result of what many lawmakers term a structural deficit, where the state’s revenues annually fall short of its expenses.

In part because of Jindal’s refusal to accept any measure that could be construed as a tax increase — essentially any action that increases revenues — the Legislature has been forced to balance the budget each year through cuts and raids on other funds. Falling oil prices have caused the gap to grow by close to $400 million, though the slide is responsible for only about a quarter of the deficit.

Meanwhile, Connick said he was still reviewing Tucker’s 2011 bill, but he had a message for the former House speaker.

“Tell him to keep his phone on because he’s worked very hard on this and I’m just resurrecting it,” he said.

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.