Southern University System President Ronald Mason spent much of a Board of Supervisors meeting Friday fending off attacks from faculty accusing him of orchestrating a systemwide power grab.
The issue started shortly before the board’s decision to reclassify the director of human resources position at Southern’s Baton Rouge campus as the vice president of human resources at the system office.
Mason explained that four-year Southern employee Lester Pourciau, who already handles human resources duties for Southern’s main campus, law school and agricultural center, would take on the same duties at the university’s Shreveport and New Orleans campuses while drawing the same $98,000 salary.
Mason said centralizing the human resources department under the system office would save campuses money while eliminating duplication of services.
There have also been discussions about centralizing Southern’s finance and information technology departments.
The Southern System is trying to stay afloat after years of declining enrollment and $48 million in state budget cuts since 2008, including a $7.1 million reduction this year.
Southern’s Baton Rouge campus was hit particularly hard and had to declare a financial emergency, called exigency, in October allowing layoffs, employee furloughs and program cuts.
But faculty members in the audience didn’t buy Mason’s argument. They described the job reclassification as the opening shot in a plan by Mason to strip authority away from Southern’s five campuses.
Diola Bagayoko, a professor of physics on the Baton Rouge campus called it a “flagrant violation” that could hurt the university’s accrediting process. He also accused Mason of creating a situation where both campus and system offices could pass the blame to each other when problems occur.
“We were told when the president came, he would raise money,” Bagayoko said. “Now we see his time was spent plotting a takeover.”
Southern University of New Orleans Faculty Senate President Joseph Bouie called the consolidation of positions Mason’s way of “creating a fiefdom under the guise of efficiency.”
Southern Baton Rouge Faculty Senate President Thomas Miller said there was some question whether the school would pass the LA GRAD Act when the system office was handling the paperwork. Those questions disappeared when the campus took over, he said.
The 2010 GRAD Act ties 15 percent of state funding to schools that meet certain performance targets, and also gives campuses permission to raise tuition by up to 10 percent each year.
“We took the initiative to disagree with the system and we passed the GRAD Act. If not, we’d be in an awful, awful, awful situation,” Miller said “Chancellors should have full authority over campuses.”
The chancellors were largely apathetic to consolidating their human resource departments with Southern Law Center Chancellor Freddie Pitcher saying the move wouldn’t affect the law school much at all.
SUNO Chancellor Victor Ukpolo said consolidation wouldn’t change his ability “to hire and fire” and would largely be about processing paperwork and dealing with leaves of absences.
Southern Chancellor James Llorens was the only administrator to speak at length on the topic, saying he is fine with the move provided he keeps his authority to hire and fire staff. Llorens also said he’d be opposed to losing any autonomy if the system office were to move to consolidate finance and information technology operations.
“It’s a philosophical issue between us and the president,” Llorens said.
Southern board member Eamon Kelly defended Mason.
“We mandated the president to cut costs and make efficiencies, the notion that we can have change without anything happening isn’t going to take place.”
Mason started his response tongue in cheek. “Let the president who’s trying to take over the world make a comment,” he said.
He continued by addressing people who had “accused him of crying wolf” over Southern’s financial situation.
Under any plan to create efficiencies, campuses will be run by their chancellors, will have their own budgets and will retain their authority during the accreditation process, he said.
“Everything else is a rumor that has no basis in fact,” he said.
In other action, Southern’s Baton Rouge campus eliminated its Master’s degree in Mass Communication and its Ph.D. program in Special Education after years of low enrollment.