The Southern University Board of Supervisors voted 10-5 on Friday afternoon to approve a financial redesign plan that supporters say could give the university a path forward during tough economic times.
The plan by Southern University system President Ronald Mason is a multipronged approach, which includes adding online course offerings and consolidating campus services under the system umbrella. Mason said those actions will create efficiencies and generate revenue.
Mason has argued that Southern needs to take immediate action to reverse its financial fortunes. State government has slashed the university’s budget by about 48 percent during the past several years, he said.
Opponents of the plan argued to delay the vote for 60 days to study what they said could potentially destroy the only historically black college and university system in the country. They said the plan needs more input from faculty and more vetting in general to determine whether campus chancellors would be stripped of their autonomy.
Faculty Senate President Thomas Kelly and physics professor Diola Bagayoko, both of Southern’s Baton Rouge campus, said faculty have been left out of the process.
“It would be remiss to vote on something that has no benchmarks,” Miller told the board. “I’m OK with bold, but give me specifics. What we’re being asked to do is hold hands and jump.”
Board members the Rev. Samuel Tolbert, of Lake Charles, and the Rev. Joe Gant, of Shreveport, both argued in favor of allowing time for more board input.
While the main components of the plan have been discussed as far back as February, Tolbert said the first time he’d seen many of the details was four days prior.
“When our chancellors are unified asking for more time, I don’t think to defer this means to defeat it,” Tolbert said. “I’m asking for a two-month deferment for a plan I just got on Monday … This plan may speed up our death.”
Southern University at Shreveport Chancellor Ray Belton argued that Mason’s approach fundamentally changes the university’s structure in giving the system office more direct control over campuses rather than its current role of overseeing policy.
Belton argued that the basics of Mason’s proposal could work while still allowing chancellors full control over their campuses.
“The chancellors can be held accountable to comply with the wishes of the president,” Belton said. “If you don’t trust us to do the job, fire us.”
But board members Eamon Kelly, a former Tulane University president; Bridget Dinvaut, of Reserve; and Simsboro Mayor Willie Hendricks urged a vote on a topic they said has been discussed at length throughout the past year.
“There’s one clear thing,” said Hendricks, who served on a committee that studied the plan. “Southern is strapped for money. Our current model is not sustainable; it will not work. There is a leak in the pipe and it’s getting bigger.”
Heightened admissions standards and $21 million in state budget cuts since 2008 have put Southern on shaky financial footing. Kevin Appleton, the Southern University system vice president of finance and business affairs, said the university has had to dip into its $3.5 million in reserve funds to balance this year’s budget and to keep Southern’s five campuses operational.
Administrators project Southern could have a $7 million budget shortfall next year, which would put significant strains on the law center, agricultural center and Baton Rouge, New Orleans and Shreveport campuses.
“This is not a situation that’s sustainable; it’s a train wreck financially,” Appleton said during Southern’s board meeting on its Shreveport campus Friday. “We’re using our savings to pay for operations and we’re spending every penny that we’re taking in.”
Appleton said Southern will likely be able to stay above water for another year at the most under the current circumstances.
Mason’s proposal calls for centralizing Information and Technology services at the campus level under a system vice president for information and technology management. Under that arrangement, a staffer on the Shreveport campus whose expertise lies in Web design, could be dispatched to design web pages for all of Southern’s campuses.
Under the accounting component of Mason’s proposal, chancellors would have authority to set their budgets, but staffers at the system level would be responsible for collecting and submitting financial reports to the state. He said this would cut down on the errors, omissions and poor audit findings Southern has been plagued with in recent years.
Near the end of the nearly five-hour meeting, Mason said he understands that change isn’t always accepted without a fight.
“I was hired to save the Southern system and return it to prominence,” Mason said. “That’s what this administration will be judged on. I’ve given you my plan; it’s not popular with everyone, but I wasn’t hired to be popular.”