As president of the Southern University System, Ron Mason has turned back two efforts to reorganize higher education institutions in the past few years, separate moves to merge Southern University in New Orleans with the nearby University of New Orleans, and to bring Southern’s two-year Shreveport campus into a reorganized system serving northwestern Louisiana.
All these came to naught in the Legislature.
While there was some merit in both proposals, there were serious political problems with closing even a single campus of the state’s far-flung institutions of higher or even medium learning.
Southern’s sense of grievance is still strong: “Clearly somebody didn’t want Southern around,” Mason told the Press Club of Baton Rouge.
We doubt Southern’s problems are so easily diagnosed on the basis of the “somebody” out to get the campuses.
Rather, it has been long-term difficulties with management, leadership and the proper place for Southern in a set of university systems which are larger and financially better-fixed going forward.
As the state continues to reduce its financial commitment to colleges, the smaller Southern system has to be nimbler to survive, let alone thrive.
The good news is this challenge is not lost on Mason and other campuses’ leaders, nor even on the often-divided political appointees on the SU Board of Supervisors. Southern has cut costs, cleaned up past accounting problems and centralized “back office” operations including going from five human resource offices — one on each campus — to one centralized department run by the system.
In New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Southern has also been able to tap into student populations that were previously unreachable through more online degree programs.
The campuses help students gain admission through good performance on first- and second-year classes, even if they were not eligible for regular admission.
Enrollment on the Baton Rouge flagship campus jumped this fall. Chancellor James Llorens and his colleagues’ priority is making the first year a success for these students, and thus retaining enrollment in the following years.
Growing enrollment is one thing, but growing excellence in particular academic programs and providing students a uniquely attractive niche in the higher education marketplace are paths to success.
It is the internals, in other words, that pose the threats to Southern. Not any external conspiracies.