Southern University System President Ronald Mason took a beating at the last Southern Board of Supervisors meeting.
At first, the punches came from faculty members accusing him of trying to undermine the autonomy of Southern’s chancellors and seize control of the system’s three academic campuses, law school and agricultural center.
Faculty members were upset about Mason’s plan to appoint one person at the system office to oversee human resources on the individual campuses.
Mason said it would eliminate duplication of services and save about $300,000. The faculty said he would move to centralize the information technology and finance departments next as part of a power grab.
The hits didn’t stop there.
Board member Bridget Dinvaut offered a lengthy critique of Mason’s recruiting efforts.
Southern has lost thousands of students in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and in subsequent years as tuition has risen and admission standards have gotten tougher. Making it harder to stay afloat is the $48 million in state budget cuts Southern has been handed by Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature since 2008.
Dinvaut, apparently, doesn’t see enough effort from Mason. She told him Southern lacks a recruiting plan with objectives and goals.
“None of the progress we’ve made is going to matter if you don’t get customers in the door,” she told Mason. “You need to put forth the resources and allocate money to get people in the door, or anything we’ve discussed today is of no consequence.”
But maybe the hardest punches thrown during the five-hour meeting were from board members who accused Mason of betting against Southern’s survival.
Board member Calvin Braxton Sr. demanded Mason quit spoon-feeding the board and lay out a plan to boost enrollment and get Southern’s finances in order. “It’s time to get down to business,” he said.
Board members Samuel Tolbert and Walter Dumas described a conversation they had with the president in which Mason allegedly told them Southern’s not going to survive.
Mason denied making that comment. He said he told the board members that Southern wouldn’t survive if changes weren’t made.
But Dumas, in particular, isn’t taking Mason’s word on good faith. “I remember what he said. If he doesn’t think Southern is going to survive, why is he leading this institution?” Dumas said. “I have no confidence in him. It’ll be over my dead body if Southern doesn’t survive.”
Dumas said he sees parallels in the push to centralize services with a presentation Mason put together at his previous stop as president of Jackson State University in Mississippi.
In that presentation, Mason offered the idea of turning Jackson State into a graduate campus with other historically black colleges and universities as undergraduate feeder schools.
Mason has defended the presentation by saying it was exaggerated for political gain. “There was never any proposal on my part to merge or consolidate universities,” Mason has said.
Mason said his plan for Southern is to consolidate to save money; bring in new students through online courses; pair the Baton Rouge campus with Southern’s Shreveport community college to ease the transfer of two-year students onto the four-year campus; and improve information and technology services to make the system more attractive to students.
That plan has garnered support, in part and in full, from some board members, including Willie Hendricks, Eamon Kelly and Chairman Darren Mire.
“I’m working from the assumption that all the board members love Southern and they believe they know what’s right for Southern,” Mason said. “Some still believe in the old model. When you talk about change, there is going to be some resistance to change.”
Koran Addo covers higher education for The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org