Southern again weighing leadership merge to handle catastrophic budget cuts

System president seeks to ‘finish’ job

Faced with what could be catastrophic budget cuts in the coming year, Southern University leaders are again considering whether to merge the system president and Baton Rouge campus chancellor roles.

The move comes just months after leaders considered, then abruptly dropped, talks on joining the two positions, as LSU did a few years ago.

The proposal of putting Southern’s main Baton Rouge campus and other Southern University institutions around the state under a single leader is one that System President Ron Mason has long advocated. Mason’s contract expires at the end of June, and the system’s Board of Supervisors voted against a contract extension last year.

During a recent video chat, both Mason and board Chairman Leon Tarver alluded to a possibly extended future at the system’s helm.

Mason encouraged alumni to get their Mardi Gras invitations in early next year if they want him to join. Tarver told participants that both he and Mason look “forward to working with you for the years ahead.”

Mason told The Advocate that there were no hidden clues in the discussion.

“When asked, I have responded that I would like to finish the work,” he said. “However, I do not know what the board thinks is in the best interest of Southern.”

Mason wrote to the board in a June 27 letter that he would be willing to serve in a new dual administrative role, but only for three years — no fewer, no more.

Additional demands that the system would have to meet before he’d agree to a contract extension included the board agreeing to a strategic agenda to make Southern University’s Baton Rouge campus a top five historically black university and top 200 public university nationally within seven years. Mason also wanted the ability to hire a team of employees and consultants as he deemed necessary to reach that goal.

Just a few weeks later, the board spent more than an hour behind closed doors discussing the proposed extension before rejecting the plan. Some on the board have called for his resignation or having him placed on administrative leave. Faculty Senate, which has been especially vocal in its criticism of Mason, gave him a vote of “no confidence.”

Meanwhile, the Southern University Board of Supervisors gained several new faces with the start of the year, and it’s unclear whether they will have the same feelings toward Southern’s future leadership.

The agenda for Friday’s board meeting also includes discussion of hiring a national firm to conduct a search for a new leader, if it decides to go that route.

Tarver said the system has to show legislators that it’s serious about being more efficient and doing its part to address budget constraints.

“This is not a situation that we can simply cut ourselves out of,” he said.

Under the current figures being discussed, Southern University faces a nearly 66 percent hit — about $34 million — to its budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, because of a state budget crisis.

Mason said it’s unlikely the cuts will be as drastic as has been discussed, based on his meetings with legislators.

“They just don’t see how higher education can take any cut anywhere near what the governor is proposing,” Mason said. “Let’s not sound the doom and gloom bell just yet.”

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