A White House official specializing in historically black colleges, a health care CEO and a campus chancellor make up the diverse group in the running to become the Southern University System’s new president and chancellor.

A search committee tasked with finding the HBCU system’s next leader held interviews for several hours in a Baton Rouge hotel on Thursday, before emerging with its top three picks for the job:

  • White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities Deputy Director Ivory Toldson
  • Chicago Family Health Center President and CEO Barrett Hatches
  • Southern University at Shreveport Chancellor Ray Belton.

One of those three could be named the next Southern University head by July 1.

The final decision rests with the system Board of Supervisors, which will hold a second round of interviews with the three finalists next month.

Over the course of their hourlong interviews, the search committee appeared most engaged with Toldson, Hatches and Belton.

Toldson, a Baton Rouge native, said he sees himself as an HBCU scholar and wants to give back to a historically black school. He said Southern holds a special place in his heart, as his parents met there and his father was on the faculty.

“It’s something that has a lot of personal meaning for me, as well as professional,” he said.

Hatches, who has previously done fundraising for Southern rival Jackson State University in Mississippi, highlighted his business background as an advantage.

He repeatedly stressed a three-point plan focused on stabilizing funding, building a culture of accountability and enhancing the student experience. “I want to build on the good and rich history that’s here,” he said.

Belton, who has worked for Southern University for 27 years, took the helm of the two-year campus in Shreveport in 2000.

“I know this system, and this system knows me,” Belton said. “I’m aware of the challenges and potential opportunities on the horizon.”

Southern University supporters are hoping that the change in leadership will mark a new direction for cash-strapped Southern.

Southern University President Ron Mason recently was named the new leader of the University of the District of Columbia. The board had earlier decided not to renew his contract past its June 30 expiration. The Baton Rouge campus, the system’s flagship, has been without a permanent chancellor since last year’s ouster of Chancellor James Lorens.

The board earlier this year voted to merge the top two leadership roles in an effort to streamline leadership and save money.

Each of Thursday’s interviews was conducted half in public and half in closed session.

Also interviewed Thursday but not selected to move on were Southern University New Orleans Chancellor Victor Ukpolo, former Tuskegee University President Gilbert Rochon, and former Savannah State University President Earl Yarbrough Sr.

Both Rochon and Yarbrough are finalists in the search for a new president for Grambling State University near Ruston.

The Grambling search committee will meet Friday to narrow its pool of finalists. Grambling campus interviews will take place next week, with a new president named June 4.

Toldson, an LSU graduate, highlighted his knowledge of federal resources, distributing a packet of materials to the board at the start of his interview.

He admitted that he was nominated for the job before pursuing it.

“With the connections that I have and the talent in this room and talent throughout this university, we can get what (other HBCUs are) getting,” he told the group.

Belton, meanwhile, touted growth in size and reputation that he’s fostered at SUSLA.

“I’ve been honored to lead the Southern University Shreveport campus,” he told the search committee. “I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished.”

Hatches noted his undergraduate degree in political science and that he obtained his doctorate in higher education leadership within the past decade as strengths that will help him in the job.

“I have been maneuvering in those circles for a while now,” he said.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. For more coverage of the Louisiana Legislature, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.