Faculty criticize online contract

Southern University System President Ronald Mason spent the bulk of a Thursday faculty meeting fending off charges that hes recklessly negotiated a partnership with an online education service provider that will hurt the university in the long run.

Members of Southern’s Faculty Senate accused Mason of freezing faculty out of the decision-making process, negotiating a bad contract and then using scare tactics to build support for a plan that gives EOServe, or the Education Online Services Corp., 70 percent of the revenue generated by offering online courses.

EOServe is supposed to help Southern increase enrollment, but had only recruited 18 students as of Thursday.

Mason began the meeting by responding to a rumor that he’s received kickbacks from EOServe. Mason told faculty that in his 30-year career he’s handled contracts worth billions while working at Tulane University, the New Orleans Housing Authority and at Jackson State University.

“The whole time I was never once accused of doing anything illegal,” Mason said. “If you don’t believe me, call the police, the FBI or the district attorney.”

At one point Mason got into an angry exchange with Physics Department Chairman Diola Bagayoko, a frequent critic of EOServe.

“Bagayoko, I respect you as a physicist, but you are loose with your words,” Mason said before later telling the professor, “Now you’re getting loose with numbers.”

That provoked an angry response from Bagayoko, who said: “I know the tactics you’re using. If you don’t stop, you’re going to get what you’re looking for. You’re going to get what you’re looking for.”

Rosyln Richardson, an associate professor in Southern’s Department of Social Work framed the debate this way: “Is this a good contract? Or is it a good contract for a system that’s desperate?”

Mason said Southern doesn’t have the necessary infrastructure to attract large numbers of online students, shepherd them through the financial aid process and then cater to their needs.

He said EOServe “works on their own nickel” and doesn’t get paid unless they recruit students.

“We needed someone to work with us over time and help us build courses and handle the volume and the speed necessary to compete in this market,” Mason said.

With state funding making up less than half of Southern’s budget, and the school losing 300 students per year, the university’s only hope of having a balanced budget next year is to increase enrollment very quickly, he said.

“This gives us a fighting chance. EOServe is married to us for a long-term relationship, because this is a long-term project,” Mason said.

The plan calls for EOServe and Southern to identify 12 to 14 marketable online degree programs and then to recruit between 20 and 30 students to enroll in each program over eight-week terms.

Faculty Senate President Thomas Miller said Mason was making Southern’s situation sound dire in order to build support.

Mason said it’s no secret that Southern is going through financial difficulties.

“I don’t know if this is the perfect plan, but it’s a plan and I haven’t heard any alternatives,” Mason said.

The contract is expected to be discussed Friday by the Southern University Board of Supervisors, which oversees Mason and the colleges in Southern system.