Southern University students arriving on the Baton Rouge campus for the fall semester will see fewer peers, fewer colleges, fewer degree options and fewer faculty as the school emerges from an eight-month period of financial emergency that ended Saturday.
But administrators say a redesigned Southern with several consolidated colleges will be an overall positive for students as the university is better positioned to concentrate resources on successful programs, like engineering and nursing, and better equipped to guide students toward graduation.
Higher education leaders affiliated with Southern and with the state say the university’s reorganization could serve as a blueprint for Louisiana’s other public colleges coping with the loss, according to the Board of Regents, of more than $420 million in state funding since 2008.
In Southern’s case, higher admission standards adopted six years ago led to an average 8 percent annual decrease in enrollment, Interim Provost Janet Rami said.
Enrollment this spring was about 6,700 students, down from 7,000 in the fall. State funding has dropped by roughly 40 percent in the past four years, according to Southern University.
Declining enrollment coupled with fewer state dollars and rising benefit costs preceded Southern’s October declaration of financial emergency, called exigency. Declaring exigency removes restrictions from downsizing staff and consolidating programs.
“When financial issues happen in the state, we feel it first,” Rami said. “Southern is like a canary in a coal mine.”
The result of Southern’s financial emergency is the elimination of 70 faculty members and the planned canceling of 99 nonfaculty positions through layoffs, retirements, resignations and attrition, Chancellor James Llorens has said.
Remaining faculty and staff were forced to take two-day furloughs every month, he said.
“We took the necessary actions to balance our budget,” Llorens said. “Southern will be smaller in terms of our academic structure but we did it in such a way that we are positioned for growth.”
The chancellor said the university’s reorganization is expected to continue into next year.
For students, Southern’s academic reorganization includes axing about 30 degree programs that Rami said suffered from low enrollment, and the merging of nine academic colleges into five.
Bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in physics have been combined with math, a number of programs in the former College of Education have been cut and while students can still take foreign languages, they won’t be able to earn a degree in those areas, Rami said.
After the mergers of various programs and colleges, Rami said, the five redesigned academic colleges are:
- College of Business.
- College of Education, Liberal Arts and Social Sciences.
- College of Engineering, Architecture and Computer Science.
- College of Nursing and Allied Health.
- College of Sciences and Agriculture.
Rami said the reorganization was developed after a lengthy review process where faculty and staff studied about 14 different models before settling on the final plan.
“This was all evidence based and data driven,” Rami said. “Universities our size typically go with the five college model, but we couldn’t do it just to save money, it had to be academically sound.”
Although Rami acknowledged that exigency has a negative connotation, she said students should view the reorganization in terms of a school that took the necessary steps to take care of its finances in-house without sacrificing quality.
Rami said 99 percent of Southern’s degree programs are nationally accredited, student-teacher ratios are “appropriate” at about 20:1 and Southern recently passed the GRAD Act for the second year in a row.
The 2010 law ties tuition increases and a portion of state funding to student performance.
The Southern Board of Supervisors on Friday took advantage of the school hitting its GRAD Act targets and approved a 10 percent tuition increase beginning in the fall.
During a break in the board meeting, Faculty Senate President Thomas Miller weighed in on Southern’s reorganization by noting that faculty did not play as large a role in the restructuring as he would’ve liked.
Rebuilding morale after the layoffs will be difficult, but faculty will still have a chance to have input in some of the finer details as Southern continues to define how the new academic colleges will operate, he said.
“There is nobody who can better address the issues of academic structure than the people with their feet on the ground,” Miller said. “I’m moving forward with an attitude that is optimistic.”
State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell, last week, looked at Southern’s reorganization in terms of the overall picture of higher education in Louisiana.
Budget cuts, he said, will likely force several public colleges to “identify what they want to be” moving forward.
Purcell said reorganization is a chance to enhance a school’s role, scope and mission rather than minimizing it.
“We expect streamlining could become a trend,” Purcell said. “Southern could serve as a role model for other institutions. We are looking to see how Southern comes out of this.”