Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Higher education troubles: more than money

It's not just the money problems that plague higher education in Louisiana, although the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars can't be a good thing.

Lately, the higher education community has been riven with administrative conflicts, showdowns and SNAFUs.

Take the flap over the leadership of the new LSU teaching hospital scheduled to replace New Orleans' Charity Hospital. As reported here by Bill Barrow of The Times Picayune, LSU System President John Lombardi appointed Lafayette attorney Elaine Abell to chair the new hospital's board.

But under pressure from Gov. Bobby Jindal, the LSU board overturned Lombardi and named LSU board member Robert Yarbrough, a Baton Rouge businessman, to the post. Yarbrough had been appointed to the board by Jindal in June.

There is a long history of powerful Louisiana governors manipulating both higher education and medical services in the state. Earl Long famously reappointed an entire medical board to ensure that he would be judged sane. His brother, Huey, may have died because of inept medical care from a political appointee after he was shot in the hall of the Louisiana capitol.

But it's not just governors who meddle in the affairs of higher education. Advocate reporter Will Sentell has this report from the Press Club of Baton Rouge, in which the legislature is rapped for its micromanagement of the higher education commission.

Council for a Better Louisiana President Barry Erwin took lawmakers to task for overturning the appointment of Tom Layzell as interim commissioner, noting that they have set up a Byzantine process guaranteed to impede the search for Sally Clausen's replacement.

"Who in their right mind is going to look at Louisiana after what we've done?" asked Erwin. "We've really shot ourselves in the foot."

What legislators have done is set up a system that requires the legislature's joint budget committee to approve the pay package for potential commissioners, followed by a confirmation vote by the full Senate.

At least six other states are also seeking higher education commissioners right now, said Erwin, but Louisiana is the only state with such a convoluted hiring process. That puts us at a competitive disadvantage, making it "extremely difficult" to find a new commissioner.

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