New Southern U leader: ‘I think we have a great story to tell’ _lowres

Advocate Photo by ELIZABETH CRISP -- Newly installed Southern University President and Chancellor Ray Belton addresses the Baton Rouge Press Club on Monday, July 20, 2015.

Three weeks into his new role as president and chancellor of Southern University, Ray Belton said he is looking for ways to enhance the system’s campuses and highlight the historically black college’s relevancy today.

“I’m not sure if we are telling our story, because I think we have a great story to tell,” Belton said during a meeting of the Baton Rouge Press Club on Monday — his first major public address since being named leader of the public HBCU system last month. “Our challenge is to be able to get those stories out more.”

Belton, who is the first leader named to the combined system president and Baton Rouge campus chancellor roles since the SU Board of Supervisors approved the merger earlier this year, said no restructuring plan has been finalized on the system level but he expects there will be a downsizing that will help “push resources back down to campuses.”

“That discussion is going well,” he said, without providing specifics.

Faculty, alumni, students and others have in the past decried what they have seen as a bloated administration that occasionally pitted the Baton Rouge campus and system-level leaders against each other.

Belton spent 15 years as chancellor of Southern University’s two-year campus in Shreveport, known as SUSLA, before the board named him president and chancellor. A Shreveport native who holds degrees from SUSLA, SUBR, the University of Nebraska at Omaha and University of Texas, Belton said Southern University’s applicant pool for the fall semester is twice the size of last year’s, which could signal an enrollment spike in the coming year.

“We are well on our way to becoming as prominent as we have been in the past,” he said. “I think we’re going to come out feeling more confident than where we were last year.”

Belton said his vision for Southern University includes expanding offerings that will cater to a diverse student population, including working adults.

“We have to position the university so that people feel the scope and presence of Southern University,” he said. “There’s an opportunity to maybe take another look at our programs.”

After years of declining enrollment and repeated cuts to state funding for higher education, Belton said he worries the university has allowed its financial struggles to dominate conversation.

Campus tensions have been on the rise in recent months, amid high-profile turnovers in top leadership positions — including the public ouster of former Baton Rouge campus Chancellor James Llorens. Belton will be responsible for selecting new chancellors for the Southern University Law Center, agriculture operations and Shreveport campus, as well as a new vice president for finance and business affairs for the system.

On top of the leadership changes, the college has been pulling from its reserves in recent years just to keep its budget afloat.

“We are being defined by our struggles, and it may be because what we have talked about is how we swim in troubled waters, as opposed to the good work that is going on,” Belton said.

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.