Gov. Jeff Landry is backing a bill that would grant him the power to appoint the chairs of Louisiana’s five higher education boards, a move that would inject politics more overtly into who oversees the state’s colleges and universities.

The sponsor of the legislation, state Sen. Mike Fesi, said the proposal was brought to him by an outside group, but he couldn’t remember who they were.

Seven higher education insiders say the person behind it is Lee Mallett, a business owner, major campaign donor to Landry and currently the longest serving member of the LSU Board of Supervisors, who they say was so angry at being passed over last July to be the board’s next chair that he skipped the board’s next three meetings.

Mallett acknowledged being “disappointed” that his colleagues chose trial attorney Pat Morrow of Opelousas rather than him to chair the board of Louisiana’s flagship university beginning in September. He said he missed the following meetings because he was “busy with other stuff.”

Mallett wouldn’t say whether he has talked with Landry or Fesi about the bill but praised it.

“It’s the most important way to finally turn around and change higher education,” he said. “How do you expect a governor to be successful if he’s trying to make changes and can’t get done the things he wants to get done?”

A spokesperson for Landry said he is supporting Senate Bill 403 because people in Louisiana want change in higher education.

“This legislation is not about trying to get rid of anyone,” said Kate Kelly, the governor’s spokesperson. “It’s about ensuring our universities are responsive to the people.”

But opponents say legislators should keep the current structure, where members select their chairs.

Among the critics is Richard Lipsey, who was appointed to the Board of Regents by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, and who chaired the board for two years under Jindal’s successor, Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat.

“It totally undermines the integrity of the boards to have the governor appoint all the chairs,” Lipsey said. “It’s totally wrong. It’s disgraceful. It puts in jeopardy all the presidents of the universities.”

The bill is only one of several filed this year to grant more power to the governor. For example, in an anti-crime special session in February, Landry, a former state attorney general, backed a bill that would have given him sweeping power over the public defense system and gutted an oversight board, though lawmakers watered down much of it.

More power to governor

Under the long-time system, the governor appoints members to the higher education boards in staggered terms. The members then select their chairs, who set the agenda, name the board committees, serve as the liaison with the university leaders and oversee the selection process for a new president when a vacancy occurs.

Landry doesn’t get to begin appointing members on any higher education board until mid-2024, unless someone leaves before their term ends.

But SB 403 would allow Landry to choose the chairs of the boards of supervisors for LSU, the University of Louisiana, Southern University, the Louisiana Community and Technical Colleges and the Board of Regents.

Under Fesi’s bill, the governor would also choose the commissioner of higher education, who coordinates overall policy with the various boards. Under current law, the Board of Regents chooses the commissioner, who is Kim Hunter Reed.

Lipsey and several other higher education insiders expressed concern that LSU President William Tate’s job might be in jeopardy if the legislation passes.

“If Bill Tate doesn’t bend down and kiss his ring, he’ll be out of there,” Lipsey said.

But Mallett described himself as close with Tate, who has headed LSU since 2021.

“If he has a problem, he calls me, and I move immediately,” Mallett said. “He can call me 24/7. I find it offensive that anyone would say I’m trying to get rid of Tate.”

Bubba Rasberry, a Shreveport business owner who served on the Board of Regents under four governors and served as its chair, readily acknowledges that politics plays a role in who the governor appoints to the higher education boards. But he said those governors – Mike Foster, Kathleen Blanco, Jindal and Edwards -- all let the boards choose their leader for what is typically a one-year appointment.

Passage of the legislation would mean “that only friends of governors get to be heads of the higher education boards,” Rasberry said. “That’s not healthy for the state. It leads to political hacks. The folks I served with wouldn’t acquiesce to that sort of structure.”

Fesi, R-Houma, said he introduced SB 403 last week at the request of the outside group because he had a slot open to file a bill. Senators can sponsor only five bills after the pre-file deadline of March 1.

“It was a group trying to make things better in how the board is put together,” Fesi said. “I dropped it to see what happens.”

What’s happened is a lot of “commotion,” Fesi said, adding, “My phone has been ringing off the hook. I don’t know what I’ve stirred up. I didn’t dig too deep into what it would cause. That was one of my mistakes. I need to go read the bill now.”

Senate President Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, said he hasn’t had the chance to read SB 403 but said Mallett had sought his support for it.

“I’ve also spoken to the governor about his frustration over his inability to make the changes he wants to make to higher education in a timely manner,” Henry said.

Who is Lee Mallett?

Mallett, 67, grew up in the town of Iowa, 15 miles east of Lake Charles. After graduating from Iowa High School, he attended McNeese State for a semester but then dropped out to work fulltime.

He now owns 13 companies, he said, including businesses that offer drug and alcohol treatment, sell salvaged goods and provide frameworks for roofs. In all, he has 200-250 employees, he said.

“I went to real school – that’s the school of real life,” Mallett said. “I’ve seen more than you’ll see in four or eight years of college.”

He chairs the Louisiana State Licensing Board of Contractors, appointed by first Jindal and then Edwards.

Mallett gave at least $15,000 to Jindal, who after his election in 2007 had an adviser ask Mallett to serve on the LSU board.

“I had to ask what the board did,” Mallett said.

When Jindal was termed out in 2015, Mallett supported then-U.S. Sen. David Vitter, the Republican favorite, but Edwards unexpectedly won the race.

Edwards vetoed a bill that Mallett wanted, and the two met, said Mallett.

When Edwards sought reelection in 2019, campaign finance records show that Mallett, family members and his companies gave $45,000 to Edwards and $100,000 to Gumbo PAC, an outside group supporting him.

Edwards reappointed Mallett to serve on the LSU board.

In 2023, Mallett contributed at least $50,000 to Landry and groups supporting his gubernatorial campaign.

“Education is a big deal to me,” said Mallett. “So is workforce (development). I play politics really, really hard.”

Last year, Mallett hosted weekly dinners at the lieutenant governor’s apartment at the Pentagon Barracks across from the Capitol for LSU officials and legislators and this year is also hosting gatherings for a wider circle of higher education officials. Mallett brings cooks and the food.

“I’m a 100 percenter in no matter what I do,” he said.

Staff reporter Sam Karlin contributed to this article.

Email Tyler Bridges at tbridges@theadvocate.com.

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