Higher education integration a costly failure By JOHN LAPLANTE [email protected] Capitol bureau chief Baton Rouge's two universities remain about as segregated as they were nearly a decade ago, when state officials agreed to spend more than $120 million to erase all traces of the old policy of racial separation in Louisiana higher education. At LSU, one student out of 11 is black. That's slightly less lopsided than the one out of 12 in fall 1995. At Southern University, white enrollment is shrinking. The school had one white student out of 30 in 1995, but one out of 50 last fall. Will LSU and Southern ever show a student mix that approaches the racial mix of the state or the area? As a 10-year commitment to a desegregation settlement nears its end, perhaps a better question is this: Should anybody care? Southern is viewed, from inside and outside its community, as a black college run by the black community to educate black students. No one is talking about changing that philosophy. Neither is LSU planning any major policy shifts. The emphasis these days is on achieving national prominence, not racial balance. And the general shortage of black students does not seem to retard the school's ability to recruit top black student-athletes. Maybe we shouldn't care whether the campuses are more integrated. But shouldn't we care that the state will end up spending about $120 million to settle a desegregation lawsuit that achieved so little integration? Nearly all that money went to black colleges, and the most went to Southern University in Baton Rouge, under the 1994 settlement. The settlement was just a means "to preserve the black institutions, with an attempt to attract a few white students" to black campuses, says James Caillier, who participated in the negotiations as the then-president of what is now the University of Louisiana System. "We were perpetuating the status quo," and everyone knew it, Caillier said in a recent interview. The lawsuit started as an attack on the status quo. In 1974 the plaintiffs alleged Louisiana, in practice, ran two higher education systems -- one white and one black -- even though laws banning black students from white colleges had been struck down by civil-rights-era court decisions. During the generation since then, the focus turned to preserving each college – protecting the turf that was planted during previous generations of segregation. Some integration did occur. Some colleges in Louisiana now nearly reflect the racial mix of the area they serve. And Baton Rouge Community College, a creation of the settlement, boasts a healthy black-white ratio. But little has changed at LSU and Southern. The latest status report on the settlement notes that Southern created nine new degrees in hopes of attracting white students. Only 15 out of about 350 students seeking those degrees last fall are white. And Southern has failed, despite the extra money and programs, to move up a notch in its regional academic classification, as the settlement envisioned. Meanwhile, LSU remains unable to enroll many more black students despite its rising national profile. Caillier said only "drastic action," such as dropping some degrees at one university and offering them only at the other, would integrate Baton Rouge's universities. And that won't happen because LSU and Southern both view themselves as full-service campuses. Letting Southern keep its own management board, with mostly black members, also ensures the university will be run with a black perspective, Caillier said. Only a single state higher education board, looking at all campuses at one time, could make some decisions that might produce racial integration, Caillier said. At one time a federal judge actually ordered a single board. But it was delayed, then dropped, as an integration tool. But Caillier said the state might not be any worse off because of the settlement. After decades of legal and political struggle and many millions of dollars, the existence of a "black" university and "white" university in Baton Rouge "is a reality we had to accept," he said. John LaPlante is Capitol editor for The Advocate.