Southern defers action on chancellor

Advocate file photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON --  Southern University System President Ronald Mason Jr. speaks at the F.G. Clark Activity Center during the university's summer 2013 commencement ceremony. Show caption
Advocate file photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Southern University System President Ronald Mason Jr. speaks at the F.G. Clark Activity Center during the university's summer 2013 commencement ceremony.

Southern University could get a chance to preview what it would be like to merge the president’s and chancellor’s roles, but the proposal has its opponents.

Southern’s supervisors are considering a plan to appoint system President Ronald Mason as interim chancellor of the Baton Rouge university, and he’s urging them to consider making the dual administrative role permanent — if not for him, then for someone else.

The Southern Board of Supervisors went into closed session for more than an hour Friday before voting without objection to delay the interim appointment until a special meeting. No date has been set, but Mason said he expects it will be near the end of the month. Mason, under state law regarding advanced notice of personnel matters, was the only candidate who could be discussed during the closed meeting Friday.

After the meeting, Mason said he would serve in a dual president-chancellor role — interim or permanently — if the board decides to go that route. He said no vote was taken because the “discussion hadn’t ended.”

“It was a lively discussion that hasn’t been finished yet,” Mason said. “There were differences of opinion.”

The board is in the middle of a search for a new chancellor, amid the public ouster of outgoing Chancellor James Llorens, whose contract expires June 30.

“We have a search firm,” Mason said. “It will be a national search, fully transparent.”

A public battle over Llorens’ exit has been waged for several months. The board twice voted not to extend his contract. Mason, former president of Jackson State University in Mississippi, had recommended the extension.

He said Llorens could continue to work beyond the end of his contract if the board doesn’t have an interim plan in place by the end of the month.

The board’s decision to drop Llorens has led to an outcry from his supporters and students who organized multiple public demonstrations and a lawsuit that eventually was dismissed.

But Mason is urging the board to consider merging the chancellor’s and president’s roles to save money. He said the board could merge the jobs and put someone else in the role when his contract expires next year if they don’t want him for the position.

“The financial issues are real,” he said.

Mason said he questions whether the university system can continue to support administrative roles that are duplicated on the university and system levels.

LSU merged its top administrative jobs in 2012.

Board member Tony Clayton also expressed concern over what he sees as a bloated administration and its impact on the university’s finances.

“We do not need people on the third floor and the fourth floor doing the same thing,” he said, referring to the Baton Rouge campus administration building that houses system and university offices. “Our system is top heavy.”

Southern has been plagued by financial struggles in recent years. During a finance report given prior to the appointment discussion, Vice President for Finance and Business Affairs Kevin Appleton told the board that the system is having to “pull together cash to pay our bills.” Southern has been pulling millions from reserves to prop up its general budget in recent years, he said.

“Here we are,” Appleton said of the university’s financial position. “This is a difficult situation.”

Multiple faculty members spoke during the supervisors’ meeting, urging the board to extend Llorens’ contract. Southern’s Faculty Senate organized a meeting in support of Llorens in February, where several members suggested Llorens had been a casualty of Mason’s desire to run the campus — a charge Mason repeatedly has denied.

Physics professor Diola Bagayoko said during the meeting Friday that he believes Mason has been acting with “contempt for the faculty.”

“Whoever is selected — if he wants to dispose of campus, that person will have to deal with me,” Bagayoko said of the next chancellor.

Former NFL football player and Southern alum Isiah “Butch” Robertson expressed dismay over the financial struggles the university faces and some board members’ apparent bewilderment at the dire situation.

“We would like to see a fair and diligent search for our new chancellor,” he said. “We want some changes, some policy changes.”

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of the Louisiana Legislature, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog .