Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer |

State higher education officials heard an initial report today from the consultant studying the possible merger of Southern University at New Orleans into the University of New Orleans, who took pains to point out the vast differences in the two institutions.

“When you think about SUNO and UNO, we are talking about very different backgrounds both academically and otherwise with the student bodies served,” said Dennis Jones, president of the Colorado-based National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.

Aims McGuinness, senior associate with the consulting group, later said that a “one size fits all” attitude in higher education will not work to address the city’s diverse needs.

“Whatever is done in New Orleans must recognize the different backgrounds, levels of preparation and interests of the population,” he said.

However, both said it’s too early to make any statements on whether a merger would be best for the two schools.

The consulting group is scheduled to make its final recommendation March 1 to the Board of Regents, which held the meeting today to hear from the group, as well as to take more input, mostly predictable, from the public.

Jones said that African Americans, who are “severely underrepresented” in higher education but who constitute the New Orleans majority, overwhelmingly attend three local institutions, with SUNO taking in the most African American students, in front of UNO and Delgado Community College.

The pair also noted the changes in demographics affecting higher education in New Orleans. The number of part-time students between ages 25 and 44 is expected to decrease over the next 20 years, Jones said. Later in the hearing, representatives from SUNO and UNO each touted their ability to serve non-traditional students who fall in this category.

Representatives from the Southern University system, Louisiana State University system, and Louisiana Community and Technical College System all made presentations to the board, each touting their system’s ability to uniquely serve the city’s population. Southern representatives, as well as stakeholders from the Baton Rouge and New Orleans campuses, were the most firm in stating their opposition to a possible merger, while others tended to reserve judgment.

“We are against the merger of SUNO and UNO,” said Southern Board of Supervisors Chairman Darren Mire. “We believe that the elimination of a (historically black college) is not in the best interest of students in New Orleans and in Louisiana.”

In response to criticism about low graduation rates, Mire said that the Southern system recommends giving more money to historically black colleges to ensure that they are on par with other state institutions. More money will raise academic standards, he said.

Louisiana Black Caucus representatives, including State Rep. Austin Badon, who also receives $44,500 annually as a SUNO staff member, echoed Mire’s opposition. He said he is “not pleased or proud” of the low graduation rates in the city’s three publicly funded schools, but that a focus on these rates is misleading due to the high volume of non-traditional students not accounted for that enter these schools.

Many UNO stakeholders likewise said the method for measuring graduation rates doesn’t match the school’s mission. They also said UNO would be better served within the University of Louisiana system. That system includes many of the state’s regional schools, such as those in Lafayette and Hammond.

“Despite its many successes, UNO’s current governance structure within the LSU system will not let it reach its full potential,” said Tom Kitchen, UNO Foundation representative. Kitchen argued that if the LSU system focused solely on the flagship LSU campus, excessive budget cuts for UNO would not have been necessary, and more students would have been better served.

Community members also took the floor during the public comment period. Members of the Board of Regents offered sporadic responses to commenters, but only Regent Robert Bruno expressed an opinion about the merger in response to City Councilman Jon Johnson’s opposition of the merger:

“It always amazed me that you have these two universities that were next to each other and they didn’t share resources,” Bruno said. “Why do we have two libraries, why do we have two cafeterias… it seems to me as a businessman, that if my business is going to survive, we have to get lean on our resources. Why don’t we collaborate, why don’t we share?”

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...