This week the Louisiana board of regents voted 9-6 in favor of consolidating the University of New Orleans (UNO) and Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO) to create a new University of Greater New Orleans with two separate academic units. The units would have separate accreditation, admission standards, and faculty governance. The regents’ decision will need to receive two-thirds legislative approval in order to move forward. Regardless of its tentative nature, many people in New Orleans and beyond are upset and concerned. The situation is volatile and colored by a history of racism in the city and throughout our nation. It is also influenced by the horrors of Hurricane Katrina. In this essay, I examine the perspectives of the various parties involved in the SUNO-UNO situation.
Supporters of SUNO argue that the institution is historic in nature and has served as a foundation for African-American education in New Orleans. They argue that the institution’s 6-percent graduation rates are a product of attrition after Hurricane Katrina, noting that 84 percent of SUNO students did not return after the natural disaster. Supporters claim that SUNO students are often first-generation, low-income, underprepared, part-time, and/or single parents. They are also concerned that Gov. Bobby Jindal is using this situation as a first step in dismantling the Southern University System, which is the only historically black public system in the United States.
SUNO students and alumni claim that the institution gave them another chance in life, is a vital part of the city of New Orleans, and has a rich history of fighting for civil rights. Many alumni used SUNO as a way to pursue their dreams, change careers, and restart their lives. Some currents students claimed that SUNO faculty and staff believed in them and that the institution was the only university that would take a chance on them. Students and alumni have also been critical of Gov. Jindal for the racial make-up of the board of regents that he appointed—all but two members are white. The board’s makeup does not reflect the diversity of New Orleans or the state of Louisiana.
Some UNO students are concerned about larger classes and the influx of SUNO students lowering their institution’s prestige—an indication of the race relations in the city. Others are not paying much attention to the controversy as their time at UNO is almost over.
Gov. Jindal has claimed that merging UNO and SUNO would save the state money and also provide more opportunity for students in New Orleans. He commissioned a study of higher education in the city, hiring the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems to conduct it.
Many members of the HBCU community are concerned that consolidating the two institutions, even though they will remain separate, will result in the loss of another HBCU. In too many cases, Southern governors have looked toward HBCUs in their efforts to cut costs, conveniently sparing the historically white institutions in their states. Many HBCU supporters are wondering how consolidating the institutions will improve graduation rates at SUNO and UNO (which also has a low graduation rate).
There are many sides to the SUNO/UNO situation—probably more than I have included here. In the end, however, we need to keep the interests of the students in mind over any other interests. How will students in New Orleans be afforded the most opportunity? How can value be added to students who are underprepared by the state’s primary and secondary institutions? How can we increase the graduation rates of students at both SUNO and UNO? These are the tough questions that Gov. Jindal, the Louisiana board of regents, system leaders, higher education administrators and faculty members, and SUNO and UNO alumni need to answer.