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Wednesday, April 24, 2019

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New higher education chief faces budget headaches

New higher education chief faces budget headaches

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — On the job for only a week, Louisiana's newest higher education commissioner, Joseph Rallo, quickly got hit with the grim reality of the state's budget.

Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration has given Rallo and state college system leaders a troubling figure, warning them the governor may propose stripping as much as $300 million in state financing from campuses next year to help balance the state's budget.

But Rallo — with a background in both military leadership and higher education management — doesn't seem rattled.

He's asked his staff and college leaders to drum up ideas that could generate new dollars for campuses, to help offset whatever cuts may come in the fiscal year that begins in July.

"We can't cut our way out of this dilemma," Rallo said Friday.

The man newly in charge of overseeing Louisiana's higher education policies said he's confident people will get creative in working on ways to stave off cuts, saying they're in the "idea business" for a living.

"We're guardedly optimistic that we're going to be able to come up with a portfolio of ideas," he said.

Rallo officially started work Monday at his $350,000-a-year job, under a contract that runs through 2017. The Board of Regents picked him as commissioner in October, taking over the position left vacant when Jim Purcell left in March after clashing with the Jindal administration and some lawmakers.

Rallo has an eclectic background: degrees in Russian history and international relations, studied in Italy, and 27 years in the military that ended with him retiring as a colonel in the Air Force. He's held a series of jobs across universities in Texas, Illinois and Colorado, working recently as vice chancellor of academic affairs at the Texas Tech University System.

In his new role, he'll oversee four public college systems that have a combined budget of $2.6 billion. And he arrives at a time that the campuses are being pushed to improve performance while also trying to rebound after years of steep budget slashing.

State financing for higher education in Louisiana has been cut by about $700 million since 2008, with only part of that offset by tuition increases on students.

With a more than 34 percent reduction over five years, no other state in the nation has cut higher education financing more than Louisiana, according to Grapevine, which tracks state support for colleges and is overseen by Illinois State University's Center for the Study of Education Policy.

But while Rallo said the ongoing budget woes are an important issue for higher education, he added: "It's not the most important issue." He said higher education can't get so bogged down with finances that it loses focus on "benefiting the student, making sure that young man or that young woman has the best possible education."
"My point is to articulate the purpose of higher education, and it's not just graduating students. It's graduating students who go off, get jobs, pay taxes, create new jobs," he said.

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