Southern University is trying to improve customer service and reach out more to students who are struggling.
The efforts, outlined in a recent report to the state Board of Regents, are a direct response to the university’s failure to meet the state’s GRAD Act measures, which are meant to improve student outcomes.
The Board of Regents has vowed to help cash-strapped and academically struggling Southern regain sound footing, though some members expressed frustration that it took the GRAD Act failure for the school to implement the new policies.
Earlier this year, the board learned that three of the Southern University System’s campuses were the only ones in the state that didn’t meet the measures outlined in the GRAD Act, which incentivise performance by giving schools the authority to raise tuition and granting other autonomies.
But colleges that fail to meet the GRAD Act benchmarks have an opportunity to gradually earn back some of their funding if they enter into a contract with the board and build a remediation plan.
“I think even they would say they’ve not done well,” said Board of Regents member Albert Sam, of Baton Rouge. “We know what the solutions are. Do we have the political will to make the solutions happen?”
Southern’s first-quarter update on the GRAD Act remediation plan clocks in at 74 pages for all three campuses.
In the lead-up to the fall semester, Southern’s flagship campus made calls to about 1,200 students who enrolled last year but had not yet enrolled for the current year. It also started requiring students with less than 36 hours — equal to about three semesters — to meet with academic advisers before registering for this semester so they could get additional guidance.
About 900 students who had fewer than 12 hours to graduate — a typical semester of college — were contacted and urged to finish, both so they could get their degrees and the school could increase its graduation figures.
The Shreveport campus purchased new training materials to help nursing students pass their professional exams, and the law school added a new academic counselor, among other efforts.
LeAnn Detillier, assistant commissioner for program administration, said board staff was still waiting for demonstrated results from the efforts. The report says the results will be part of the second-quarter update, which is due in January.
“These activities may stop the bleeding,” Larry Tremblay, deputy commissioner for planning, research and academic affairs, said of the plans underway.
But he said he doesn’t think that Southern Baton Rouge will be able to catch up to meet the GRAD Act requirements for the coming year.
“In my estimation, it is so far behind the targets it is still not gonna make it,” he said.
Several Board of Regents members expressed frustration over the situation at Southern and that these efforts in response to the GRAD Act weren’t already happening on campus.
“These things that are remediation measures, they should be done by everybody every year,” said member Joseph Wiley, of Baton Rouge.
Sam agreed, noting that the mission of a historically black college and university, or HBCU, should be to “take the kid who’s at risk” and help him succeed.
“If that’s not being done ... why are you at an HBCU?” he said. “We can’t just ignore a segment of our population.”
Monique Guillory-Winfield, vice president for academic and student affairs at the Southern University System, said a lot of pieces are in play at Southern — and sometimes competing issues.
“We’re trying to look at these situations very closely,” she said.
The college wants its enrollment to grow but already doesn’t have enough English faculty to meet demands for the current semester, she said.
And the GRAD Act is just one example of the struggle Southern is facing at the moment.
The college has been pulling from its reserves in recent years just to keep its budget afloat.
This summer, the state had to step in to repair a bridge that had collapsed on campus, but even that is only a temporary fix that eventually will have to be repaired to last long term.
During a recent meeting of the Southern University System Board of Supervisors, a student complained that raccoons had taken over campus, and another raised additional safety concerns over lights that had not been replaced across campus.
Southern also is about to begin the process of finding a new system president and chancellor for the Baton Rouge campus.
The system board opted not to renew President Ronald Mason’s contract when it ends next year, and the chancellor’s role is filled with an interim leader at this time. Some — including Mason — have proposed combining the positions, though the board has taken no formal action on that recommendation.
System board Chairwoman Bridget Dinvaut, through written statement read at the board’s meeting this month, set out plans for the search process, naming a single committee to lead the searches.
“Although the positions are separate, one committee has been appointed to conduct the search process, and subsequently make recommendations to the Board of Supervisors,” she said.
The search committee will be chaired by board member the Rev. Joe Gant, and former SUS President Leon Tarver, now a member of the board, will serve as co-chairman.