SU board members: Llorens job doomed by nagging issues

The inability of Southern University Chancellor James Llorens to fix several nagging issues on the Baton Rouge campus likely doomed him and kept him from getting the contract extension he was seeking, board members said Tuesday.

Llorens is expected to end his three-year run leading the campus when his contract expires June 30.

It’s been an up and down month for Llorens. The university’s Board of Supervisors left him at the altar twice within 17 days.

First, board members voted not to give him another year. Later, they scheduled a second vote to reconsider their first vote; and finally, they voted him out of office again.

The first time was a 9-6 vote taken Feb. 7 in Shreveport. That vote prompted a student rally, online petition and all-day protest inside Southern’s administration building.

Many of Llorens’ supporters argued the board voted on Southern’s Shreveport campus as a sneaky way to get rid of the chancellor while avoiding most of the public fallout.

There was a strong public sentiment that another vote held in Baton Rouge where Llorens is popular could be enough to swing the vote the other way. He previously worked for parish Mayor-President Mayor Kip Holden.

The second vote came about after board members used a rule that says a special meeting can be scheduled, provided five of them request it in writing.

Llorens’ supporters on the board said privately they felt they had enough time to get the votes needed to keep the chancellor in place. They were wrong. The 8-7 vote was one shy of the nine needed to save Llorens’ job.

Neither vote came down to a simple yes or no. Both times, his contract renewal was contingent upon Llorens accepting different conditions, including working more closely with system President Ronald Mason and meeting a number of performance benchmarks.

On the first vote, Llorens balked at the conditions. The second time, he accepted them.

Board Chairwoman Bridget Dinvaut twice voted against extending Llorens’ contract. On Tuesday, she described each vote as a referendum on his job performance.

With the state moving toward higher admission standards and stricter performance measures for public colleges and universities, Dinvaut said it’s incumbent that everyone from administrators on down to raise their level of job performance accordingly.

“There are significant operational issues on the Baton Rouge campus, and I think the board is very aware of that,” Dinvaut said. “The votes reflect that.”

It’s true that Llorens has spent much of his time at Southern putting out fires.

A regional accrediting agency placed the university on probation in December 2012 for insufficient data reporting; a national organization of professors voted to censure Southern in June 2013 for its handling of a restructuring of academic programs; and the university athletic teams are currently facing a postseason ban for submitting “unusable” academic data to the NCAA.

Southern’s Baton Rouge campus also has long been plagued by poor customer service. It’s most evident during registration week, where in the past students camped out overnight to secure a place in line, while latecomers were forced to wait for 10 or more hours to get their financial aid and class schedules finalized.

Many of those problems pre-date Llorens, and many of those situations have since been resolved. But several board members, this week, were not in a mood to completely absolve a chancellor they say has come up short on a number of key issues.

Board member Darren Mire, of New Orleans, voted twice to extend Llorens’ contract. But he said neither vote was a blanket endorsement of the chancellor’s job performance.

Mire said he would not have voted to keep Llorens if not for the conditions placed on the contract extension.

“There are definitely some issues on the Baton Rouge campus the board expected him to fix that have not been resolved,” Mire said. “As board members, we get a lot of those calls about customer service.”

Mire said the poor service is particularly unacceptable considering how long those issues have been a problem.

“At the same time, we need stability, so that’s why I voted how I voted,” Mire said. “I thought he and the president could work on these things together. I didn’t think the provisions” were out of line.

Board member Murphy Bell, of Baton Rouge, also voted twice to keep Llorens in place. He said he had no problems with conditions being attached to any extension Llorens might have gotten.

“My position has never changed,” Bell said. “There are issues on the Baton Rouge campus.”

Bell said he would be “overstepping his boundaries” to explain exactly what needs to be fixed, before adding that too much has been made of rumors that the system president wants to usurp Llorens’ authority.

“I think it’s the obligation of everybody in the system and on the Baton Rouge campus to help out and get things resolved,” he said.

Board member Myron Lawson, of Alexandria, and student member Simone Bray were the only two board members speaking on the record Tuesday who offered no-strings-attached support for the chancellor.

Both said they would have liked to see Llorens get a new contract of three years or more, but neither believes they could’ve rounded up the nine votes needed to make that happen.

Lawson said he didn’t fight harder to get the conditions removed strictly because he was trying to get the chancellor another year on campus.

“I believe we could have worked out the details later,” he said.

He added that some of those conditions could’ve proven dangerous down the road if the agency that handles accreditation was to rule that the president had too much power over the campus.

“Any chancellor should have benchmarks attached to his contract; what I am worried about is the micromanaging,” Lawson said. “The president should be able to work with, but not above the chancellor.”

Lawson also took exception to suggestions that Llorens was falling down on the job. He pointed to the outpouring of support the chancellor has generated over the past month as proof the chancellor has a gift for making students feel appreciated.

“The best way to recruit is to have existing students go out and tell others about the wonderful experiences they’re having at Southern University,” Lawson said. “And don’t forget the chancellor walked into a situation with budget cuts and falling enrollment. He was in the process of turning it around.”