NEW ORLEANS — Eye-level watermarks, gutted buildings and rows of mobile classrooms linger as reminders of the flooding from Hurricane Katrina that nearly wiped out Southern University at New Orleans in 2005.
Now the predominantly African-American university faces what students and administrators view as a new threat: Gov. Bobby Jindal's proposal to consolidate the school with the nearby, mostly white University of New Orleans.
"It will be the death of SUNO," student government vice president Ellis Brent Jr. said recently as he worked on a letter-writing campaign in hopes of killing the idea in an upcoming legislative session.
Jindal's proposal renews a politically and racially charged argument that pops up periodically in the roughly 20 states that have public, four-year institutions known as historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs.
"Every time the economy tanks, and certainly, right now, these are dire economic times, understandably governments and legislatures look for ways of cutting costs while maintaining and increasing a level of educational excellence," said Lezli Baskerville, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education. "We certainly applaud and salute that.
"The challenge comes when there are broad and diverse options and the first option appears to be `let's look at submerging HBCUs into the historically white college and university system.'"
Jindal is adamant. "It makes no sense to have colleges blocks apart, neither one of them with graduation rates we can accept," he said Tuesday at his weekly legislative news conference in Baton Rouge. At the same time, more than 200 SUNO supporters were gathering on the Capitol steps to protest the merger.
Students have filed a complaint with the Department of Justice over the merger, saying the state has discriminated against minority students, the faculty senate president said Tuesday. Spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa confirmed Tuesday that the Justice Department has received the complaint.
A 2009 proposal in Georgia to merge two mostly black colleges with mostly white institutions failed. The following year, the Georgia NAACP sued the state for alleged systematic underfunding of black colleges. A 2010 proposal by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour would have merged three historically black universities – Alcorn State, Jackson State and Mississippi Valley state – but it went nowhere.
This latest effort comes as Louisiana faces a $1.6 billion budget shortfall and it's being pushed by a governor with high approval ratings and no announced opposition so far as he campaigns for re-election in the fall. Still, it will require a hard-to-get two-thirds vote in the House and the Senate and has strong opposition from the Democratic Party, black lawmakers and much of the New Orleans political establishment, including Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
Jindal insists his proposal is about improving education, not saving money. Unveiled in January, it comes a little more than five years after both campuses were badly damaged when levees breached during Katrina and much of the city flooded. Lower post-Katrina enrollment and low graduation rates plague both schools, especially SUNO, where the percentage of students who graduate within six years is less than 8 percent.
A SUNO-UNO consolidation proposal adopted in March by Louisiana's top higher education board, the Board of Regents, involved something less than a full-blown merger. Based on a consultant's recommendation, it called for creation of a "University of Greater New Orleans" encompassing a consolidated administrative system running both an "urban research university" with tougher admission standards and a "Metropolitan University" having, in the consultants' words "a special role (and obligation) in serving the African-American citizens of the Greater New Orleans Region." It also would keep the schools with separate academic officers and accreditations.
Last week, Jindal floor leaders introduced a bill calling for a more sweeping consolidation, with one accreditation and one academic chief.
Either recommendation removes SUNO from the governance of the Baton Rouge-based, historically black Southern University System. Students and administrators are uneasy about SUNO leaving the Southern fold and they question whether the consolidated university would truly serve the needs of New Orleans' black students.
"SUNO's mission is driven by the fact that it's part of the Southern University System," Ron Mason, president of the system, said.
Talk of SUNO's low graduation rate irritates SUNO administrators.
"It's directly impacted by Katrina," chancellor Victor Ukpolo, said during a recent news conference. The percentage is affected, he said, by the fact that the campus shut down after the August 29, 2005, storm and many students quit or transferred rather than wait for resumption of classes the following January.
Still, supporters of the merger point out that SUNO's six-year rate is the lowest in the state – much lower than that at UNO, around 21 percent, which was also hit hard by the storm.
"What they're not telling you is that, because the students here are older, work harder and have many life challenges, it takes them nine years to graduate," Mason said in a separate interview.
Anthony Jeanmarie agrees.
"Most people do not go to SUNO for four years. That's not going to happen," said Jeanmarie, a 35-year-old SUNO student. "If your life is complicated in any form or fashion and you want to go to a university, then SUNO is your place."
And Jeanmarie's life is complicated. A married, African-American father of three who preaches at a New Orleans church and was recently laid off from his job at a state Medicaid office, he finished high school at 16, but was a teenage father by the time he entered college. He said poor grades got him suspended from SUNO but he returned three years ago to major in psychology.
"Give this university a chance," he said, arguing that recently adopted higher admission standards are expected to increase graduation rates, and noting that enrollment is bouncing back.
National education officials will be watching.
During a recent visit to New Orleans, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was careful to say he does not know details of the current proposal and couldn't comment specifically on it. He made clear, however, that HBCUs are an important part of the Obama administration's efforts to increase the number of people getting college degrees.
"A disproportionate number of students going to HBCUs are first-generation college-goers," Duncan said. "When they have these opportunities, it doesn't just change their life, it changes the life of their family for generations to come."
There is trepidation about the proposal, too, on UNO's campus, where enrollment is more than 11,000. Student Government Association President John Mineo said students there are concerned about the uncertainty involved as the consolidation debate heats up.
UNO currently is without a chancellor and the search for a new leader was suspended recently amid uncertainty over the merger proposal. Some students worry that they may be affected by tougher requirements will be adopted at ta new, hybrid university, And, he said UNO students he has talked to don't think a merger should be forced if SUNO students are opposed.
"I don't think race is an issue," he said. "SUNO students feel like they're losing their identity and UNO students feel like they're losing theirs too."
Associated Press writers Melinda Deslatte and Molly Davis in Baton Rouge, La., contributed to this report.