Our Views: Next steps for Southern

James Llorens might be leaving his post as chancellor of Southern University’s Baton Rouge campus soon — or maybe he won’t.

Last week, Southern’s Board of Supervisors opted not to renew Llorens’ contract, which expires June 30. Now, after public outcry about that vote, the board is supposed to have a special meeting at which Llorens’ future as chancellor might be reconsidered.

The drama concerning Llorens and the SU board has made for interesting theater, but it also points to serious policy implications that need a full public airing. Whether Llorens stays or goes, citizens should have a clear idea about how decisions reagrding Southern’s leadership are being reached.

Llorens became Southern’s chancellor in July 2011, meaning his tenure leading the campus will be a mere three years if he leaves this summer. That kind of turnover is becoming more common on university campuses. Budget and enrollment pressures have made higher education leadership posts more challenging and politically contentious. University chancellors, like public school superintendents, seem increasingly vulnerable to the revolving door.

Llorens has led Southern during one of the toughest periods in its history. Massive state budget cuts and declining enrollment forced him to cut programs and reduce staff.

To his credit, Llorens aggressively recruited foreign students to help boost enrollment at the historically black university. Enrollment numbers increased last autumn for the first time in years.

The failure to renew Llorens’ contract also underscored tensions between the chancellor and Southern University System President Ronald Mason. Mason had proposed extending Llorens’ contract another year, but with a stipulation requiring Llorens to work more closely with the system office on management issues. Llorens rejected the deal as too limiting on his authority.

At a time of scarcer resources for public universities, these kinds of turf battles between campuses and system offices seem more common, too. LSU addressed these tensions by changing its management structure, rolling the duties of system president and chancellor of the Baton Rouge flagship campus into one office. That’s a new arrangement, so we’ll need more time to see how such a management model works at LSU.

We suspect that few members of the general public are that interested in how university leaders construct their management charts. But taxpayers do need to know that resources are being used wisely, and that kind of clarity is best achieved when board members in charge of these universities have candid, open debates about how these institutions are being led.

That kind of frankness was sadly lacking at the Southern University Board of Supervisors meeting at which members voted not to renew Llorens’ contract. Four members left after the vote while the meeting was still in progress. Most board members were tight-lipped about what they had done.

In such a climate of secrecy, rumor and innuendo inevitably flourish. That’s not in the interest of Southern and those who depend on its mission.

In possibly moving to rethink Llorens’ future on campus, SU board’s seems to be acknowledging the public’s desire to be heard before big changes occur at Southern. We want Southern’s answer to public concern to be more than cosmetic.

That means Southern’s board should have an open debate about Llorens’ leadership and the specific roles of the chancellor and the system office in guiding the university.

This is the best way to help the Southern University, succeed, regardless of who leads it.