Louisiana’s departing higher ed boss wins praise amid budget upheaval

Original story at http://www.theadvocate.com/baton_rouge/news/education/article_208bb250-635e-11e8-964d-132f22fc67c7.html

Commissioner of Higher Education Joe Rallo on May 30, 2018. Advocate Photo by Will Sentell

Joseph Rallo, who leaves state government on June 8, spent most of his 42-month tenure as commissioner of higher education watching aid for colleges and universities slashed in historic ways.

Just a decade ago, Louisiana finally reached the Southern regional average when higher education state aid totaled $1.5 billion.

Last year it came in at $832 million.

State dollars for classrooms shrunk from about $1.2 billion to roughly $200 million, sparking repeated tuition hikes to help offset the cuts.

“We have lost a decade,” Rallo said.

Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, said Rallo did a commendable job in near impossible circumstances.

“This is the most difficult operating environment in the country for higher education,” Sullivan said. “He managed it about as well as anyone could.”

Last year’s standstill budget, which may happen again this year, was something of a victory amid recurring state budget problems.

Colleges finally dodged the annual budget bloodletting they had experienced year after year staring in 2008.

“Here you really try to control the trajectory,” Rallo said of his former job. “And the trajectory has been to stop the budget cuts.”

Allies said that, despite the seemingly endless financial problems, Rallo deserves credit for being a steady hand during tough times, and an outstanding communicator willing to challenge the status quo.

“He maintained focus throughout,” said Jim Henderson, president of the University of Louisiana System. “It was very steady and very helpful to those of us in the business.”

Rallo was paid $384,000 per year.

For the past few weeks he has been senior advisor for the Board of Regents – same duties – after Kim Hunter Reed was picked to be Louisiana’s ninth commissioner starting in July.

Rallo, 68, was a veteran educator when he took the job here in January 2015.

He is former president of Angelo State University in Texas and served in top spots at Western Illinois University, the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs and the Texas Tech University System.

In addition, he spent 27 years of active and reserve duty for the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force, and retired from the Air Force with the rank of colonel.

In the military, he said, serving as a line officer meant he had people working directly for him – control.

Being commissioner of higher education, Rallo said, was more like being a staff officer – less control.

“There is really not a lot you can do to effect change on the campuses,” he said. “It’s a different kind of job.”

Others said Louisiana’s higher education system hampers its leaders, and stifles innovation.

The setup includes boards that oversee LSU, Southern University, the University of Louisiana System and the Louisiana Community and Technical College System. “Commissioner Rallo did as good a job as could be expected with the structure of higher education as it stands today,” said state Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, a member of the Senate Education Committee.

“Five boards that govern higher education and the Board of Regents is supposed to be the super board, if you will, but it is more or less a paper tiger,” Appel said.

House Education Committee Chairwoman Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, called Rallo “a really smart man” who did an outstanding job of communicating with her committee.

“He had things he would have liked to have done that he did not have the authority to do,” Landry said. “He was little bit stymied.”

Under Rallo’s watch, the staff of the Regents recommended that recipients of the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, or TOPS, be required to earn at least 30 credit hours per year, up from 24 now.

Rallo noted that, even among TOPS students, the 4-year graduation is just 32 percent, and 64 percent after six years.

“That to me is just absolutely wrong,” he said. “You need to be getting into the workforce.”

The Board of Regents voted to shelve the proposal last year amid criticism from students and others.

Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, called Rallo a professional with a wealth of experience, and instrumental in getting Louisiana’s latest push for science, technology, engineering and math education off the ground.

But Hewitt said higher education needs to do a better job of showing results, including what jobs college graduates fill.

“Unless we take that step I think it is going to be an uphill battle,” she said of higher education funding.

Rchard Lipsey, a veteran member of the board, said Rallo gave the panel a new direction and united factions.

“Very articulate guy,” said Lipsey, who lives in Baton Rouge. “Does not waste a lot of words.”

Rallo pushed for implementation of a program to replace costly textbooks with less expensive options.

He took steps to reduce Louisiana’s longtime problem of college students needing remedial work as freshmen.

He tightened rules for those who teach dual enrollment – classes where students earn both high school and college credit.

Rallo, who grew up in New York City, plans to retire in San Angelo, which is in west central Texas and where his wife Barbara is from.

Louisiana is sort of a latecomer to embracing higher education, sometimes viewed as unneeded when high-paying jobs offshore were plentiful.

“In this state if you had a strong back and a good work ethic you could find a job that paid well,” Rallo said. “There has been a transition, and a lot of people I don’t think recognize that.

“I wish we would convince the people of this state that we are the economic engine of the state,” he said of colleges and universities.

“Sometimes the inability to have people receive that message in a positive way, or act on it, might be a little bit of a frustration.”