Southern board member calls for Mason’s resignation

At least one member of the Southern University System Board of Supervisors is calling for the resignation of President Ronald Mason, ahead of a planned discussion on the renewal of Mason’s contract this weekend.

“The facts remain that President Mason has been voted down as president/chancellor, his destructive and dismantling of the system transformation plan is a complete failure, his online program feature has more internet lines than students, the (Shreveport campus) Connect Program has too much SU System interference and every debate on the campuses has the president at the center of them,” board member the Rev. Samuel Tolbert wrote in an email that went to the other members, Mason and the head of the Faculty Senate on Thursday.

Tolbert told The Advocate his email doesn’t speak for the rest of the 16-member board, and he’s eager to see what happens at the board meeting Saturday.

“I just believe Southern needs new leadership,” he said.

The move comes amid ongoing discussions about the financial future of Southern University and the cash-strapped historically black university’s leadership.

Faculty Senate leaders — among Mason’s most vocal critics — this week also called for his removal, following a recent vote of “no confidence.”

Campus tensions have been particularly on the rise following the ouster of former Baton Rouge campus Chancellor James Llorens. Longtime finance administrator Flandus McClinton Jr. is serving indefinitely as interim chancellor, while the system board weighs its options for moving forward.

The board has considered a proposal to merge the president and chancellor roles — a move LSU’s system recently made. Southern board members discussed putting Mason in the dual role on an interim basis in June, but emerged from a closed meeting without the votes to do so. Mason said he would serve in the combined leadership job if the board wanted him to, but, either way, he thinks the administrative consolidation would make Southern University more efficient.

Mason, who served as president of Jackson State University for a decade before taking the job at Southern in 2010, does have some backing on the system board.

Board member Eamon Kelly, former president of Tulane University, defended Mason in a letter to board members Monday, the same day Mason sent the reminder of his terms.

“Even though this is a ‘management’ board, good managers do not engage in the type of behavior we are witnessing, especially in a public forum,” Kelly wrote.

Tolbert questioned the letter’s authorship. Though it’s signed by Kelly, Mason said in an email that he helped with it.

“We have to radically and quickly restructure, reduce administrative expenses and increase enrollment through traditional and non-traditional means, in order to survive,” Kelly’s letter states. “We have changed our goal — de facto — from being an outstanding HBCU providing a high quality education experience to one of simple survival. Based on our self-destructive actions to date, I am not optimistic about the prospects for success even with this limited goal.”

After years of state budget cuts, Southern University is facing significant financial struggles — a point Mason says supports his request for an administrative consolidation, as well as the strategic plan. The university is bracing for an estimated $7 million shortfall during the fiscal year that began July 1 and already has been dipping into reserves to prop up its budget in recent years. Southern University’s Baton Rouge campus and two others recently failed to meet the benchmarks outlined in the state’s 2010 GRAD Act, so it’s barred from increasing tuition to bring in more money.

The Advocate first reported Wednesday on a letter that Mason sent to board members earlier this week, informing them he won’t seek or accept an extension of his contract as president when it expires next year, unless certain terms he has outlined are met. His contract is due to expire June 30, 2015.

As president, Mason is paid $374,000 a year, plus an annual $16,000 vehicle allowance and $36,000 yearly housing allowance.

If Mason’s contract isn’t extended — either solely as president or in a new dual role — the contract stipulates that he’ll still have a job at the school as a tenured full-time professor at the Southern University Law Center, with a salary calculated as the average of the three highest-paid professors at the law school starting fall 2015.

Among his outlined terms to continue on as president: the system board would have to agree to a strategic agenda to make Southern University’s flagship campus a top five historically black university and top 200 public university nationally within seven years.

“I will be allowed, within available resources, to bring together a team of employees and consultants, organized as I deem necessary, to do the work,” Mason wrote in the letter outlining his demands dated June 28.

Board chairwoman Bridget Dinvaut wouldn’t comment on the specifics of the recent letters and disputes behind-the-scenes Thursday.

“We’ll have open, healthy deliberative discussions at the board meeting,” she said.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of the Louisiana Legislature, follow our Politics blog at blogs.the advocate.com/politicsblog.