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The Associated Press

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) -- A consultant studying a controversial proposal to merge of Southern University at New Orleans with the University of New Orleans suggested two options Monday to rework an educational system deemed to be failing the city's students. Neither option is a complete consolidation of the campuses.

The Colorado-based National Center for Higher Education Management Systems is presenting the two proposals to Louisiana's top higher education board, the Board of Regents, at an afternoon meeting. Regents, which hired the consulting firm at the request of Gov. Bobby Jindal, is scheduled to vote a day later on which option it wants to endorse.

One option would merge the two campuses into the University of Greater New Orleans, though the schools would maintain separate missions under that umbrella. The other option would redesign the campuses to ensure they have distinct purposes and don't overlap functions.

In both scenarios, SUNO would lose its focus as a historically black college and the two campuses would share administration support systems, services and facilities. They would also collaborate more directly with the nearby two-year Delgado Community College, which has struggled to find facility space to meet its bulging enrollment.

However, even in the merged University of Greater New Orleans, the consolidation wouldn't be total. The two campuses would be separately accredited and would have different admissions criteria.

Jindal asked the Board of Regents to study the possibility of a merger in January, saying it could improve education in the region.

The idea has generated loud criticism from the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus, SUNO staff, alumni and students, Democratic Party leaders and others who call it an attack on historically black colleges and universities --or HBCUs that won't improve educational attainment.

It's a debate that is being heard well beyond state lines, with comments lodged Monday from Obama administration.

'We're very concerned about this issue,' said John Wilson, Jr., director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs.

Wilson didn't take a position on the merger, but said if saving money is the object, there is no evidence that a merger would be the answer. Nor, he said, would a merger necessarily address the problem of SUNO's low graduation rate of around 7 percent.

The discussion has prompted a lawsuit by Southern students against Jindal and the Regents board, arguing the board is unconstitutional because it lacks diversity.

Any merger would have to be approved by two-thirds of state lawmakers to take effect.

The SUNO and UNO campuses are only blocks apart and graduation rates are far below the Southern average. UNO currently is managed by the Louisiana State University System, while SUNO is managed by the Southern University System.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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