State lawmakers, faculty and hundreds of students rallied Monday around Southern University Chancellor James Llorens, throwing their support behind the leader of the Baton Rouge campus just three days after Southern’s Board of Supervisors voted 9-6 not to renew his contract when it expires June 30.
The board voted down a recommendation from Southern System President Ronald Mason that would have extended Llorens’ contract for one year under the condition that the chancellor work with the system office to revamp how the Baton Rouge campus is run.
The move has been considered by many a continuation of Mason’s consolidation of administrative functions among Southern’s five campuses in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport, which could cost people jobs. Conversely, Llorens has been strongly in favor of keeping the flagship Baton Rouge campus more autonomous, as it has been traditionally.
Southern students were energized almost immediately after Friday’s vote, creating a Facebook page, starting an Internet petition and posting flyers online, all in support of keeping Llorens in place as chancellor.
The support continued Monday with Southern’s Faculty Senate holding a meeting on short notice in support of Llorens. Many of them suggested the chancellor had been a casualty of the system president’s desire to run the campus — a charge Mason has repeatedly denied.
Later Monday, students packed a room in the student union, filling all 300 seats with several dozen more students packed into the back of the room where it was standing room only.
Student Government President Simone Bray, who is also on Southern’s board, organized the rally. She said the general feeling around campus is Llorens is moving Southern in the right direction despite shaky finances and little support from the state.
Students cheered frequently for guest speakers, including state Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge and a Southern alumnus.
“I support the president, I like the president, but I love Jim Llorens,” James said.
James later shouted out Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office phone number, urging students to call the governor to express their dissatisfaction with the board members he picked to manage Southern.
Students also cheered when board member Calvin Braxton promised that he would offer a motion at the Southern board’s next meeting that would give Llorens a new three-year contract.
Llorens got a partial standing ovation when he stood in front of the microphone. He attempted to tamp down some of the animosity that’s been directed toward Mason by telling the crowd that while he and Mason get along personally, he felt the president’s recommendation to the board would allow Mason to bypass the Chancellor’s Office in making decisions about how the Baton Rouge campus is run.
“I’m overwhelmed by the support I see here today,” he said. “This university will survive. … Southern University will go forward. I pledge my support to the university for as long as I live, with whatever breath I have.”
Even with the outpouring of support, it’s unclear whether Llorens has a future at the university. Southern’s board frequently struggles to reach a consensus during its public meetings and it was thought before Friday’s meeting in Shreveport that a number of board members already had someone in mind to be Llorens’ replacement.
Two board members and a Southern official, who last week predicted that Llorens would lose his job and be replaced by another candidate, spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they didn’t want their names attached to such a sensitive issue. Two of those sources backed off their statements on Monday, saying there was not enough support for the candidate whose name was being thrown around.
It is also believed that Llorens’ political contacts could ultimately save him in what many believe is a power struggle between him and Mason. Llorens is the former assistant chief administrative officer for East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden and is believed to have strong support among alumni and in several communities around Baton Rouge.
Both Llorens and Mason deny there is any animosity between them. Both of them said Monday that Mason’s recommendation was to keep Llorens as chancellor, albeit with a few caveats.
Mason explains that his job as system president requires him to make recommendations based on what he thinks is best for the system. He appeared to chuckle during Monday’s rally when board member Myron Lawson commended him for showing up and not “running and hiding.”
When it was his turn at the microphone, Mason was brief.
“My job is to evaluate the chancellor and give a recommendation to the board,” he said. “My role is now finished.”