Significant gains made
between LSU, Southern

Advocate staff writer

Last week's annual meeting between the governing boards of LSU and Southern University raised this question:

How significant are steps to move the schools closer together when the student bodies are about as segregated as ever?

The ninth annual gathering is one of the requirements of a 1994 federal consent decree that settled a long-running racial discrimination lawsuit. The court order added money, programs and buildings to historically black schools such as Southern University.

The decree was not, Commissioner of Higher Education Joseph Savoie pointed out, designed to boost the number of black students at LSU and white students at Southern.

That issue has baffled state and federal officials for more than four decades.

University leaders contend there has been lots of progress, both in symbol and substance. They say the good will between LSU and Southern leaders is sincere, significant and a sign of progress.

Southern University System President Leon R. Tarver marveled at improvements in higher education in his lifetime.

"I feel better about this state than ever before," Tarver said.

LSU President William Jenkins, a native of South Africa, recalled that even picking a meeting place was a prickly topic in 1995.

"It took some time to decide where the neutral site would be," Jenkins said.

He said there is not a single issue he would avoid with Tarver.

"It's like visiting one of our own campuses," Jenkins said.

In the early years, reports on joint activities between LSU and Southern took 15 minutes. Similar summaries took at least four times longer this time.

LSU Chancellor Mark Emmert said more than 200 Southern students cross-enrolled at LSU since January, and 260 LSU students enrolled at Southern.

Tryouts for plays at LSU's Swine Palace theater include students from both schools, he said. Joint engineering research projects total $700,000.

Savoie noted that the creation of Baton Rouge Community College -- one of the fastest-growing schools of its type in the country, with about 5,700 students -- was one of the requirements of the 1994 court decree.

ROTC students from the two schools train and compete together. Southern officials help LSU plan the annual Martin Luther King Jr. birthday activities.

LSU Law Center Chancellor John Costonis said the attrition rate among minority law students used to approach 50 percent at LSU. Last year, white students left LSU's law school at a higher rate than minority students, he said.

The criticism is this: How meaningful is all this when the overwhelming majority of students and administrators at Southern are black, and their counterparts at LSU are white?

Southern's board of supervisors remain mostly black, and the LSU board is mostly white.

In the fall of 1995, black students made up 8.3 percent of LSU's enrollment. In the fall of 2002, the latest figures available, black students accounted for 9.6 percent of the student body.

White students made up 4.3 percent of Southern's Baton Rouge campus enrollment in 1995. Last school year they accounted for just 3.6 percent.

Tony Clayton of Baton Rouge, a member of the Southern University Board of Supervisors, disputed criticism from an LSU law student at the meeting who said key school operations are more segregated today than a decade or so ago.

Clayton said LSU "has gone way beyond the call of duty" to attract and keep black students. Southern has worked hard to attract white students, Clayton said. He said Southern's law school is about 40 percent white.

Jenkins told the group he is one of just two officials who were at the first meeting to bridge the gap between the two schools.

"We have come so far," he said. "This is not just patchwork."

Will Sentell covers education and other issues for The Advocate.