LSUS/La Tech Merger Approved by House Education Committee

The House Education Committee on a 14 to 4 vote on Tuesday approved a bill to merge LSU Shreveport with Louisiana Tech University.

Bill 964 by Rep. Thomas Carmody of Shreveport now moves to the House floor where a two-thirds vote is needed for passage.

“We need to meet the needs of the region,” said Carmody.  “The bottom line is not simply about merging two institutions, this is about seeking to provide a brighter future.”

House Appropriations Committee Chairman, Rep. James Fannin of Jonesboro and a co-author of the bill, told committee members the merger makes sense because of the state’s continuing money troubles that would require cutting $210 million by June 30th along with an estimated $71 million reduction in the new fiscal year for higher education alone.

Calling the measure a “local bill,” Fannin told the committee the merger would hold down administrative costs and consolidate programs in two different systems.  “Do we want mediocrity among all of us or do we want to focus on consolidation where we can, cut out programs, and elevate higher education?” Fannin asked.

And Fannin said, “We have to have some changes in what we do and how we provide higher education to our citizens.”

Carmody said LSUS was in a “death spiral” and the “coup d’gras” was “not far away” as a result of declining enrollment. “Something’s got to give,” he said.

Minden cardiologist, Dr. Philip Rozeman, the lead proponent of the merger, said the takeover would most likely give LSUS a better partner in Louisiana Tech that is more likely to deliver new academic programs.

“The merger fulfills the best way to provide a more comprehensive university for the Shreveport area,” Rozeman said.

Before approval, Carmody amended the bill without objection to require the Louisiana Community and Technical College System along with the Southern University System to set up remedial courses on the LSUS campus because increased admission standards that go into effect this fall, ban remedial courses at four-year public universities.

Businessman Mike Woods of Shreveport, a longtime LSUS backer, said plunging finances underscore the need for a merger, noting a 42 percent reduction in LSUS state funding over the last four years and a nine percent drop in student credit hours.  “It’s not going to get any better, it’s going to continue to get worse,” Woods said.

Dr. Wayne Hogue, a LSUS instructor who supports the move, declaring that the merger represents a “spectacular economic development opportunity” for North Louisiana, told committee members the measure would set free LSUS academically.  “This is the only way for us to get the shackles off us and start all over,” Hogue said.

Leading objections to the merger were Interim LSU System President Dr. William Jenkins and LSUS Chancellor Dr. Vincent Marsala.

Dr. Jenkins told legislators, “I frankly can’t understand why Shreveport/Bossier doesn’t want to grow it’s own research institution?”

Citing the University of Texas at Dallas campus as a potential model for development of LSUS, Jenkins said, “Shreveport/Bossier needs its own public, major research institution” and not one tied to another institution 70 miles away.

Jenkins also told legislators, pointing to a University of Maryland study of a proposed merger in Maryland, that up to 80 percent of mergers inside and outside higher education fail and that cost savings might not materialize.  “Be very careful of doing down that path, that could very well be a trap,” Jenkins said.

Marsala blamed repeated delays by the Louisiana Board of Regents on a failure to quickly deploy new programs at LSUS, adding that the LSU System and LSU Board of Supervisors had approved every proposal submitted for new degree programs.

And Marsala told the committee plans to bring new programs to LSUS would work.  “This is very progressive and can be implemented in the fall,” said Marsala of the new LSU Shreveport Commitment Plan that would initiate as many as 24 new academic programs over the next 18 months.

Rep. John Bel Edwards of Amite noted an estimated $1.5 million fiscal impact of a merger,including legal fees and property surveys, but Fannin countered that savings would be a long-term proposition.  “Sometimes you have to spend money to save money,” said Fannin.

Legislative Fiscal Analyst Charley Rome, confirmed that there is uncertainty over long-term costs, particularly for consulting services.  “We’re not really sure what the net impact will be,” Rome said.  “We’re not really sure when the changes will take place.”

Later, Higher Education Commissioner Jim Purcell disputed Marsala’s claims of delays in approving new programs by the Board of Regents, claiming Marsala at one point even supported the suggested merger.

Reading from a list of programs approved by the Board of Regents over the last 12 years, Regents Chairman Robert Levy declared the Regents approved all proposals submitted by the LSU System for LSUS.

But Marsala, reading from a letter he sent to the Regents, detailed  repeated delays by the Regents in approving a new degree programs.

“There are formal and informal ways to throw water on something, Marsala said.

The measure could come up for House debate next week.