This story was published on Nov. 16, 2014

Southern University leaders hope to name a new system president by the end of the year, but some people are starting to express hesitation — if not outright skepticism — over the ambitious time line.

“Why is the process so rushed? It seems to me, if we are choosing the president of five campuses we would want to take our time and find the best, most-qualified person,” said Errollyn Jackson, who is part of a group of Southern Alumni called Concerned Citizens Stand United and has voiced criticism of the Southern University System Board in the past.

The job was posted onto the Southern system’s centralized job board Nov. 7. A separate site was created sometime last week to promote the position, though there’s no obvious link from the system website’s homepage. A separate listing went up on Inside Higher Ed’s career openings on Tuesday, and on Thursday the opening was posted on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae site.

Applications and recommendations are due by Nov. 30, and a system-based search committee will be sifting through them even as they come in.

“It’s a very ambitious time line, that goes without saying,” said Thomas Miller, president of the Southern University Faculty Senate. “Is it ideal? It’s never ideal. Is it workable? I believe it could be.”

President Ron Mason’s contract runs up June 30. The system also is in the market for three chancellors, but board members wanted to wait until a new president in place before tackling the other administrative hires.

The presidential search committee, which was formed by the Southern University System Board of Supervisors and contains several board members, had its first meeting to kick off the process earlier this month.

The Rev. Joe Gant, who is chairing the panel, said he believes the time line will work — he’s offered to take time off from his church if he needs to, but he said he’s also willing to extend the process if it doesn’t produce quality candidates.

“I think it can be done, but if we get to a point where we think we don’t have a decent pool then we’ll come back and say we can’t meet this deadline,” he said.

As president, Mason is paid $374,000 a year, plus an annual $16,000 vehicle allowance and $36,000 yearly housing allowance. The next president likely would receive a similar compensation package.

As with many situations at Southern in recent years — from a heated battle over former Chancellor James Llorens’ ouster earlier this year to three of the campuses’ failure to meet the state GRAD Act benchmarks, some are skeptical and questioning potential motivations behind the speedy process.

At least five board members’ terms expire at the end of the year — Darren Mire, of New Orleans; Walter Dumas and Murphy Bell, both of Baton Rouge; Myron Lawson, of Alexandria; and Bridget Dinvaut, of LaPlace — though the governor could re-appoint them, as has been done with the board in the past.

“I find it odd,” Jackson said, noting that the time line outlined would give them all a vote in the new president, but they could be excluded if it runs into next year and someone else is appointed to the board.

Jackson said she and other alumni also question whether the board will be as open as it says it will be. Because the committee isn’t using a search firm, which can cost thousands, all applications and recommendations will fall under the state’s open records law and must be released.

“It’s a bit difficult to believe,” said Jackson, who is still trying to get documents related to the hire of Mason. “We’ll see.”

Miller is a bit more optimistic. He said he appreciates that there are two faculty representatives on the small search panel.

“I do wish the process had been started earlier but, be that as it may, I think this process could still work out OK,” he said.

Miller, who has been an outspoken critic of the current system administration and the board’s handling of past issues, said he’s hopeful that — if not someone internally — the Southern System will be able to attract a candidate familiar with the cash-strapped historically black university system’s issues.

It won’t be an easy job, he acknowledged.

“We need someone who’s going to be capable of making tough calls when necessary,” he said. “There will be the need for some tough decisions in the next administration.”

After the president search is completed, the Southern system immediately will be in the market for several campus chancellors.

Longtime finance administrator Flandus McClinton Jr. is serving indefinitely as acting chancellor of the main campus.

The Southern University Law Center chancellor and Agriculture chancellor’s contracts will both expire next year.

Meanwhile, the university is facing monumental financial struggles.

Universities and community colleges that meet their yearly goals outlined in the GRAD Act can increase tuition by up to 10 percent. Those who don’t can’t, and they lose 15 percent of their overall state funding.

Officials say it’s unlikely that Southern University’s flagship campus will even be able to meet the benchmarks next year, either.

Already in the wake of repeated state budget cuts that have significantly reduced its state funding for higher education — and facing further cuts if state revenues continue to lag, Southern has anticipated a $7 million shortfall for the fiscal year that began July 1 and already has been dipping into its reserves.

Jackson said she thinks the system needs someone who will work hard to be an advocate for Southern.

“Southern University is still a brand, and I refuse to let this board run that brand into the ground,” she said.

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