Southern board punts on vote

After two years of sometimes contentious debate, Southern University’s Board of Supervisors was supposed to turn a corner Friday.

Board members were set to vote on the final piece of President Ronald Mason’s plan to overhaul the inner workings of a network of campuses in the midst of an economic crisis.

But the overhaul includes some pay increases, and concerns from lawmakers that Southern would be sending the wrong message to raise salaries at the same time the state is slashing college budgets, may have derailed Southern’s vote.

Mason’s plan would eliminate old job positions, create new ones and put in place a number of different personnel changes and salary adjustments. One employee was in line to get a $30,000 salary bump, up to $115,000.

Mason has said that reshuffling positions includes eliminating, and in some cases, combining job duties leading to a net savings of $1.2 million for the Southern System.

All of that was supposed to be discussed during Southern’s board meeting. But by Friday morning, the topic had been scrubbed from the agenda, without explanation.

One board member was mad about it, others were noncommittal and all board Chairwoman Bridget Dinvaut would say is the topic required “further discussion.”

About 10 miles away at the State Capitol, however, there were whispers that the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus — Southern’s closest allies in state government — warned university leaders to postpone the vote because of perception.

The fear was that the public might not see the nuance of the plan and misconstrue the personnel actions as a bunch of employees getting pay raises. The thinking was that negative public perception of the moves might hurt Southern in the Legislature’s upcoming budget negotiations. Southern is facing a $12.1 million cut in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposed 2015 budget, and university leadership will likely be looking at the Black Caucus to fight to close that gap.

A number of Baton Rouge-based Black Caucus members on Friday denied any involvement in having the personnel actions taken off the meeting agenda. Black Caucus Chairwoman Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, however, said some of the group’s membership questioned the move.

“We talked to them about a number of issues,” she said. “I think some caucus members had questions about the positions and why (they were necessary). There were inquiries about what these moves are. I think Southern decided it wasn’t a good time.”

Postponing the vote angered Southern board member and former Tulane University President Eamon Kelly.

“I strongly object to the constant putting off of the transformation plan,” Kelly said. “I think we are probably getting close to violating our fiduciary responsibilities as board members.”

Mason’s so-called transformation plan is a response to a financial crisis caused by six straight years of state budget cuts and several years of declining enrollment, particularly on the Baton Rouge campus.

The plan is supposed to address how to save money by streamlining Southern’s business operations, while generating revenue by attracting more students, all while keeping tuition at manageable levels.

It has several different components including a nationwide recruiting effort to funnel students toward online degree programs and a program called SUSLA Connect.

The Southern System has a community college in Shreveport, known as SUSLA. It operates satellite locations on Southern’s Baton Rouge and New Orleans campuses.

As state mandated admission standards go up, students who don’t meet the requirements to enroll in one of Southern’s four-year campuses will be routed into the SUSLA Connect program. It allows the students to live physically on the Baton Rouge or New Orleans campuses, while taking community college classes. The partnership allows students who raise their academic performance through their first 18 credits, a seamless transfer into university-level courses.

A third component, and perhaps the most contentious, is Mason’s plan to centralize information technology, enrollment, human resources and financial services under the system office. Mason said it’s a more efficient model than the current model where each of the system’s five campuses handle those operations independently.

Consolidating 20 different business operations run by the campuses, into four operations run by the system, requires a drastic reshuffling of job descriptions and a number of different personnel changes, Mason said. It’s the part of the plan the board was supposed to vote on Friday — the filling in of a new organizational chart.

Mason explains that the current director of information systems is an employee on Southern Shreveport’s campus pulling down an $85,000 annual salary. Under the plan, that employee would be promoted to associate vice president of technology operations under the system office at a salary of $115,000 a year — the median salary for similar positions, Mason said.

He added that Southern would see a net savings under the plan because of other positions that would be eliminated or combined.

“This is the last step,” Mason said. “Finding the best people to put in the boxes. It’s a good plan.”