A Louisiana Board of Regents panel voted Wednesday to defer action on Southern University’s $79 million budget amid concerns about Southern’s finances and future.
The Regents approved the budgets of every other public college in the state but Southern’s.
“The university could be on a path of destruction — complete destruction — if something doesn’t happen,” said Regent Robert Bruno, of Covington.
Southern, in recent weeks, has flirted with declaring a financial emergency, called exigency. The university also is accepting voluntary faculty furloughs — mandatory time off without pay — in order to balance the university’s budget.
The Board of Regents Finance Committee unanimously voted to delay action on Southern’s budget, ordering university officials to better detail its current budget and future plans within the coming weeks.
The Regents decision will have no impact on Southern’s day-to-day operations in the meantime.
Southern has continued to struggle with state budget cuts and significant student enrollment losses in recent years.
The Board of Regents approved the budgets for every other public college in the state. The panel “conditionally approved” the budgets for the LSU Agricultural Center, the Pennington Biomedical Research Center and the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, called LUMCON, all of which are dealing with financial problems as well.
Southern Chancellor James Llorens said he was somewhat surprised by the decision, because he had hoped the Southern budget would also be “conditionally approved.”
Llorens said he will work with the regents to get them all the information they want.
Regents Finance Chairman Bubba Rasberry, of Shreveport, said the board is focusing more closely than ever on university budgets.
“Times are changed,” Rasberry said. “State dollars are increasingly scarce.”
Todd Barre, the regents’ deputy commissioner for finance and administration, said state dollars for higher education are down 10 percent from last year, but the losses are largely offset by additional tuition hikes.
State funds covered 66 percent of the higher education budget three years ago, Barre said, and now it is less than 50 percent.
Prior to the vote, state Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell questioned whether Southern’s budget is adequate.
“I know you provided us with a balanced budget; I’m just not sure it’s an educational appropriate budget,” Purcell said.
Southern University System President Ronald Mason Jr. insisted that classroom education is being protected and that the cutbacks are more in student support services.
“Are we put into a situation where we have to deal with the hand we’re dealt? Absolutely yes,” Mason said.
In order to make major changes more quickly, the Southern administration proposed declaring exigency, but the move was rejected by the Southern Board of Supervisors in a split vote.
Declaring exigency would have allowed the administration more leeway and expediency to lay off tenured faculty and ax academic programs.
Exigency is generally considered a serious blemish that could scare away current and potential employees and students. No public Louisiana university has declared exigency since the University of New Orleans did so after Hurricane Katrina.
“Exigency is an extreme step, and faculty and alumni were understandably concerned and, in some ways, fearful of the impact that could have on the university’s reputation,” Mason said.
Rasberry and some other Regents members agreed with Mason and Llorens that declaring exigency would have allowed Southern to address its structural problems.
“Frankly, I believe there is a worse case by delaying the inevitable,” Rasberry said.
“We are kicking the can down the road, but we’re not kicking it off the cliff,” Mason said.
As for Southern’s faculty furloughs, roughly 60 percent of the tenured faculty volunteered to take them. But about 20 of them asked to withdraw their agreements before they were handed over to the chancellor.
Llorens reiterated Wednesday he is implementing the 10 percent furloughs with those 20 tenured faculty members anyway, because he considers their signatures “irrevocable.”
“There’s always the possibility of legal action,” Llorens said. “But we believe we’re on solid ground.”