For the last couple of years, the Legislature has debated whether to break up our current system of multiple management boards running higher education and replace them with a strong single board or some variation thereof. While the legislation has had the backing of no less than the governor and the Speaker of the House, it’s never come close to passing.

Still, the notion that there must be some better way to govern higher education refuses to go away. That’s why the Legislature passed a resolution in the recent legislative session creating a commission to study the governance issue and come back to lawmakers next year with some recommendations about what to do.

The single board concept has been kicked around for years. Former Governor Buddy Roemer was its first real champion. He pointed to the high-quality, post-secondary education system in North Carolina and its single governance board as a model for Louisiana. His single board constitutional amendment fell one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed to win legislative approval.

Since then, it’s come back up under Governor’s Foster and Jindal, but it’s gotten nowhere near the votes needed for passage. Especially recently, it’s also failed to get the thorough study and review that’s needed. That’s unfortunate and that’s why this new Governance Commission, on which CABL serves, could play a positive role in helping to resolve this ongoing issue.

In some ways it’s a tough issue because there are really no “best practices” out there for governing higher education. Though there are two broad approaches that seem to dominate, every state does it somewhat differently and none has risen to be considered the best or most appropriate way to run things.

Several years ago when Dr. John Lombardi, who now serves as president of the LSU System, was chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, he discussed that in a study of governance structures and the competitiveness of research institutions. His remarks at that time are of interest today. “What works in California,” he said, “does not translate to New York. What proves successful in Indiana does not have a future in Florida. What appears successful in Michigan has no currency in Louisiana. Each of these models is a political not an educational artifact, and it responds to the local political concerns of the state it serves.”

That could certainly be said of our current structure that includes an LSU System, a Southern System, a University of Louisiana System and the relatively new Louisiana Community and Technical College System. But the fact, as he states, that they were largely established for political reasons rather than educational reasons explains why attempts to change them have proven so difficult.

Going to a single board represents a pretty drastic change and it’s hard to look at the political horizon in the near future and foresee passage of a single board getting that much easier. Yet, at the same time we must acknowledge our system has some problems. One of the biggest is the fact that language in our constitution isn’t all that clear about who’s ultimately in charge.

The Board of Regents, which is supposed to be the coordinating body over all of higher education, has some authority, but so do the four individual management boards and there is sometimes a lot of muddy water in between them. Another issue is that in some ways the systems themselves don’t make a lot of sense. You have two-year schools in the four-year system, small regional schools that are in the flagship system and a historically black institution that’s not in the historically black college system.

A single board would certainly fix all that, but is it the only way to make some improvements in governance, particularly given the fact that it hasn’t come to pass in at least the last couple of decades?

Not necessarily. For example, one could use the examples just mentioned and do some positive things by strengthening the Board of Regents, clarifying its authority with that of the management boards and aligning institutions into systems that make more sense for them. We’re essentially doing a small piece of that realignment now with the transfer of UNO into the University of Louisiana System. There are certainly other such moves that should receive serious consideration.

And that’s why this new commission has real opportunity before it. It’s charged with evaluating and making recommendations about a single board, because that’s what’s on the minds of legislators right now. But it’s not limited to that one governance structure. It has the latitude to go further and consider other models that might make better sense than what we have right now and, in doing so, offer recommendations that might actually yield some results.

Of course, even the types of things we’ve mentioned are not without their political difficulties and almost any type of change is hard. But the debate over governance in higher education doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon. Today there’s an opportunity we’ve never really had before to look at all angles of how we govern our colleges and universities and consider new and different options. That’s a good thing and it’s an opportunity we should take advantage of to the fullest.

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