Working against the clock, the Southern University Faculty Senate failed Monday to reach an agreement on faculty furloughs that could prevent the administration’s call for a declaration of financial emergency on the campus.
The indecision comes on the heels of Moody’s Investor Services placing the Southern University System on its “Watchlist” for a possible debt rating downgrade because of the potential emergency, called financial exigency.
Such a downgrade could affect $60.9 million of outstanding debt on construction and student housing projects on Southern campuses, according to Moody’s.
The Southern Board of Supervisors on Friday postponed a vote on exigency in order to allow the faculty a few days to agree to take some time off without pay this year and the next school year in order to avoid exigency and shorter job termination notices for faculty. The furloughs would result in up to 10 percent pay cuts with time off.
The Southern University System Board has called a special board meeting on Wednesday to again consider exigency.
Southern Chancellor James Llorens said at least 90 percent of the faculty will need to agree to a suitable furlough plan in order to avoid exigency.
Southern Faculty Senate President Sudhir Trivedi said Monday that he will seek an injunction in federal court to prevent exigency if the Southern Board agrees to declare an emergency.
Trivedi said Southern has failed to use exigency only as a true last resort as required by its bylaws.
“I am disappointed,” Trivedi said after the Faculty Senate met for more than two hours without voting on anything.
Trivedi said he will still draft a proposal and send it to the Southern Board for consideration. But he added, “We are set for failure here,” because it will be nearly impossible for 90 percent of the faculty to agree on any plan prior to Wednesday’s meeting.
Declaring a financial emergency allows the administration more leeway 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.
After the faculty meeting, Llorens reiterated the plan is to still request exigency if the faculty do not reach a consensus. Llorens contends exigency is the last-ditch resort necessary to make the long-term financial fixes the university needs.
Although no votes were taken on a furlough plan by faculty, the first draft would have agreed to one year of 10 percent furloughs — time off without pay — and a second year of furloughs in the 2012-2013 academic year only if it is necessary to balance the budget.
A revised plan backed by Trivedi only supported one year of furloughs and made other adjustments.
But all faculty who spoke agreed they would only support the furloughs if they applied not only campus-wide — except for employees making less than $30,000 — but also to Southern University System employees and system President Ronald Mason Jr.
Southern Faculty Senate Vice President Thomas Miller said the university’s financial failings are administrative and are not the fault of faculty.
“As a faculty, we can agree to take sacrifices,” Miller said. “But we cannot agree to cut our salaries when we make in a year what President Mason makes in a month.”
Mason has a $426,000 annual total pay package.
Earlier Monday, Mason downplayed the Moody’s announcement, arguing the agency was only responding to the talk of exigency.
If exigency is declared, Mason said, “I’m assuming we’ll be making the case that we’re financially stronger because of the decisions we’ve made … In some ways, it shows we’ve taken control of our finances.”
But Southern political scientist Albert Samuels complained Monday that the administration is continuing to “undersell” the effect of exigency.
“We already have a significant image problem that is largely of our own making,” Samuels said. “The last thing we need to do is signal to the world that we cannot manage our affairs.”
Llorens last week insisted that the only way to avoid exigency was for faculty to voluntarily sign off on one year of 10 percent furloughs and shorter job termination notices so faculty and academic programs could be eliminated more quickly.
But faculty balked at also supporting the enhanced administrative authority to cut academic programs and lay off tenured faculty with just one semester of notice.
Llorens said faculty agreeing to a second year of voluntary furloughs campus-wide could eliminate the need for exigency and the shorter termination notices he had argued were needed to make long-term fixes more rapidly.
For the past two years, Southern staff has been furloughed, which amounted to a 4.6 percent reduction in pay. But the faculty was not included.
Southern faculty have argued that $1.5 million saved in faculty furloughs should not break the back of a $78 million overall campus budget.