New Southern University leader cautious yet optimistic for future enrollment, funding _lowres

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- Ray Belton addresses the Southern University System Board of Supervisors, after it named him Friday as the new system president and chancellor.

Ray Belton has been at the helm of the Southern University System for about 60 days, but already he says he recognizes the challenges he faces.

Southern University has struggled with an image problem. Enrollment was slumping until this year. Reserve funds are dwindling after years of repeated cuts to state higher education funding.

National discussions have even been raised about the future of historically black colleges and universities in general.

“The Southern University System needs to really be in a position so that we demonstrate our value to the state,” he told The Advocate editorial board on Wednesday. “I think there’s great promise for the university going forward.”

Belton, who served nearly three decades as leader of the Southern University System’s two-year campus in Shreveport, was selected by the university’s Board of Supervisors to take on a newly merged president and chancellor role this summer.

Enrollment is up on all three of the system’s campuses this fall, including an eye-popping 31 percent increase in the freshman class at Baton Rouge.

“We’re somewhat optimistic that we are turning the curve,” Belton said.

Belton outlined several plans and ongoing discussions — ways he thinks Southern University can better serve students and the community.

One of his priorities at the moment is hiring a new executive vice president for academic affairs/provost. Belton said he expects an announcement as soon as next week.

“We had some excellent candidates,” he said.

Belton also said he has made “inroads” with entities interested in Southern University offering courses downtown, including law and business classes.

“There are some opportunities on the horizon,” he said.

But at the same time, he’s cautious about giving the impression that cash-strapped Southern isn’t concerned about being more efficient or realistic about the financial challenges that nearly every public university in Louisiana has faced as state support has been slashed.

“From my observations, that is in an issue that has tarnished the reputation of Southern — our ability to be responsive to those concerns,” he said.

That’s likely to include discussions of what specific areas Southern will shift its focus toward.

“We can’t be everything to everybody,” Belton said. “That’s going to require the university to do the appropriate assessment so that we can make critical decisions about where our revenue should go.”

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of Louisiana state government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.