Southern faculty threaten to sue; protest

Advocate staff photos by Brenden Neville -- Southern University System President Ronald Mason Jr., left, presides over a board meeting.
Advocate staff photos by Brenden Neville -- Southern University System President Ronald Mason Jr., left, presides over a board meeting.

Several dozen faculty members said Tuesday that they are willing to hold protests and take other action to stop what they described as Southern University System President Ronald Mason’s attempts to illegally take control of Southern’s campuses.

Southern’s Faculty Senate decided it needs to consider drastic action to prevent Mason’s financial reorganization plan from taking effect.

The plan centralizes information technology, enrollment and financial services under the system office.

Mason argues that his plan is “business 101,” in that it eliminates the duplication of each campus running its own “back office” operations and saves money.

Faculty members also are upset over a contract Mason negotiated with Florida-based Education Online Services Corp., or EOServe, to help Southern expand its online degree programs.

Mason shot back Tuesday, saying a small number of faculty are trying to mislead a larger group over issues that have been discussed in public meetings, vetted by the system’s campuses and approved by Southern’s Board of Supervisors.

“If these people were interested in having an honest conversation and bringing forth truth and fact, they could have invited me to their meeting,” Mason said in an interview later in the day. “I knew nothing about it.”

Faculty spent much of the meeting criticizing terms of Southern’s contract with EOServe that stipulate the company receives 70 percent of tuition revenue from students it recruits for Southern’s online degree programs.

Also, under the contract, EOServe will get 40 percent of the tuition revenue paid by students originally recruited by EOServe who later to decide to take traditional, on-campus classes.

Faculty Senate President Thomas Miller said he worries that courses Southern faculty develop to be used in an online format will be used “to build the future for EOServe.”

“Our faculty is being asked to give away our efforts to a private entity,” he said.

Miller added that Southern University of New Orleans enrolls 600 full-time students in very successful online degree programs that can be replicated throughout the Southern System.

Miller said he will form a Faculty Senate committee to explore filing a lawsuit to end Southern’s partnership with EOServe.

Physics Professor Diola Bagayoko, who like Miller is a frequent critic of the system office, said he will check with university police before organizing a series of campus protests and vigils to put pressure on the system office.

Mason, on Tuesday, defended the contract with EOServe, explaining that it’s a unique deal where the company takes all the risk in working with Southern to build online degree programs; invests its own money in paying faculty for developing online courses; and is helping modernize Southern’s enrollment processing, which he said isn’t up to industry standards.

“They don’t get paid until we get paid,” Mason said.

Southern takes its 30 percent share of the revenue off the top, while EOServe will bear the costs of marketing programs, digitizing course content and recruiting students out of its 70 percent share, Mason explained.

With Southern looking at a hole of $7 million to $12 million in next year’s budget, Mason has argued that a key to Southern’s survival is increasing enrollment through online degree programs.

“This partnership was scrutinized at every level, assessed and then reassessed by the board,” Mason said. “From a business point of view, it’s clearly a piece of the puzzle to Southern University’s future.”