Inside Report: Southern board not always businesslike

Go to any one of the roughly five higher education board meetings held in Baton Rouge each month, and one of them is likely to stand out — but not for the right reasons.

From the Board of Regents, to the LSU, University of Louisiana and community and technical college management boards, the meetings are usually quiet affairs where board members ask questions, talk policy and generally treat each other with courtesy and respect.

Take a trip up to the bluffs for a Southern University board meeting and you get something else.

At Southern, some board members interrupt one another, others talk over administrators and some of them blurt out personal attacks.

On the one hand, it’s refreshing that Southern board members debate each other and challenge administrators on the wisdom of this idea or that.

Compare that to the other boards where members rarely argue, never direct a sharp word toward one another and seem to agree on most things, and Southern probably has a case for being the most open and honest out of all five of Louisiana’s public higher education boards.

The problem is that a lot of times that openness and willingness to air grievances at Southern goes too far and it gets personal.

Even among Southern alumni a group that is notoriously loyal and protective of the university there is a largely held belief that the board can be an embarrassment at times; and a detriment to the university, at other times.

Besides the infighting, Southern’s board members sometimes go through stretches during which they focus on one particular issue and keep it going for months.

In one recent example, Southern University System President Ronald Mason decided that there’s no need for each of Southern’s five campuses to have their own separate human resources, finance and information technology departments when they could save money by just having one office for each task.

Mason floated his plan months in advance. During subsequent meetings, board members weighed the pros and cons. Some board members claimed the plan effectively chopped off at the knees Southern’s five chancellors. Others said it was the first step in bringing about the downfall of the country’s only historically black college and university system. Some board members looked at it strictly as a money-saving plan.

The point is that there was some kicking and screaming, but eventually the debate ended and the plan was voted on and approved by a majority vote. That should have been the end of it. Other boards would have respected that vote and moved on.

But at Southern, some board members who didn’t like the outcome were successful as long as three months after the fact at keeping the issue alive during board meetings, rehashing the same arguments.

Consider that the same consolidation plan is fairly common both inside and outside of Louisiana, and has already been proven a successful model for higher education.

So why all the fighting? Privately, board members say personality clashes and personal differences among board members and university leadership are the cause. They say personal dislike boils over into the policy discussions.

To be sure, that doesn’t apply to the majority of Southern’s board members. Most conduct themselves professionally, but on a board made up of preachers, lawyers, business people and community leaders, you would hope that pettiness never seeps into the policy. It’s a discredit to a proud university.

Koran Addo covers higher education for The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. Contact him at kaddo@theadvocate.com.