Southern board to vote again on chancellor position

An outpouring of student support might have been the difference Southern University Chancellor James Llorens needed to get another shot at running the Baton Rouge campus.

Five members of Southern’s senior leadership emerged from a backroom meeting Tuesday afternoon, stepping around more than a dozen students staging a protest, to announce Southern’s Board of Supervisors would soon schedule a special meeting. The meeting will presumably be held to take an up or down vote on whether Llorens is the right person to head Southern’s flagship Baton Rouge campus.

Later Tuesday evening, one of those board members, Tony Clayton, spoke before the Baker City Council and said that he is pretty sure there are enough votes to keep Llorens on as chancellor.

It would be a reversal of Southern’s 9-6 vote on Friday not to extend the chancellor’s contract for another year. The vote followed a recommendation from Southern System President Ronald Mason that Llorens be allowed to keep his job for another 12 months provided that he agree to assist the president’s office in coming up with a plan to run the campus more efficiently.

Board members have been tight-lipped and haven’t explained why they voted the way they did. It is unclear, some say, whether board members were voting against keeping Llorens for another year, or voting against the conditions Mason attached to his recommendation.

Llorens, for his part, said he was clear when he told the board he was not willing to accept the terms of the president’s recommendation. He argued that it would undermine his authority to run the campus and give the president unprecedented power to meddle in Baton Rouge campus affairs.

Mason denied that was his intention.

It’s a battle Mason has been fighting for more than a year against attacks from faculty and board members who charge that his plan to centralize the administrative functions of Southern’s five campuses in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport, is really a back-door attempt to run those institutions.

Separate from those battles, Friday’s vote touched off a loud response from students in support of the well-liked chancellor.

Students spent the weekend making fliers, circulating an online petition and organizing a rally supporting Llorens. On Tuesday, the fourth day of the protest, students staged an all-day sit-in outside the president’s office. Numbers fluctuated throughout day as students came in and out of the protest.

Ayanna Spivey, a senior social work major and 2013-14’s “Miss Southern,” was one of 15 students participating in the sit-in late Tuesday. Spivey said Llorens deserves more time to turn around an institution that has been suffering from state budget cuts and declining enrollment. She also praised Llorens for his accessibility to students.

“It’s a blessing to be able to go to the chancellor whenever you have a problem,” she said. “As for the president, we don’t see him. We never see him around campus.”

It’s a charge that Mason has dealt with a lot. He is not known as a backslapper, while Llorens has a reputation for building strong networks of support.

Freshman Corinne Vaughn said she doesn’t know what Mason stands for.

“I don’t know him,” she said. “All I know is he’s not active on campus.”

Meanwhile, Nicholas Harris, a junior biology student, said he met Llorens at a scholarship banquet when he first got to the university. The two have maintained a relationship ever since.

“He was welcoming to me. He invited me to come to his office anytime,” Harris said. “He came in at a dark time for Southern University. I don’t know if another guy could’ve handled those problems while still keeping a level head and still being available to students.”

The news that Southern’s board will hold a special meeting to discuss Llorens’ job status, essentially broke up the protest. Students hugged each other and then headed for the exits.

Southern’s board chairwoman, Bridget Dinvaut, gave the credit to Student Government Association President and fellow Southern board member Simone Bray for insisting on the meeting.

Llorens said he was satisfied by the chance to get another shot at the chancellorship, although he wasn’t presuming to know the outcome of the vote. His current contract expires June 30.

“I know there is zero commitment on the board’s part” to extend my contract, he said. “I want a new contract ... but I know nothing has been pre-determined.”

Mason also said he was fine with the decision to hold a special meeting.

“The students’ voices were heard,” he said. “This was a great learning experience for them.”

Mason also said he will take into consideration the complaints students have made about his leadership style. He said he’s made a conscious decision to stay off the campus so as not to appear as if he’s meddling.

“Now that I know they want to see me, I’ll spend more time on campus,” he said. “The fact that the chancellor spends a lot of time on external relations is reflected in the outpouring of support he’s gotten during this process. I’ve been focused more internally.”

Advocate’s staff writer Steven Ward contributed to this report.