Southern University “whether by intent or design” is being dismantled. At least that’s the way Southern’s System President Ronald Mason Jr. sees it.
Mason, of course, acknowledges that all of Louisiana’s public universities are hurting. The Legislature has cut $360 million from higher education in the past four years. And if the House Republicans manage to push through their version of next year’s state spending plan, universities will be asked to swallow another $225 million in cuts.
But at a school where the feeling is the state has always underfunded them, the sentiment is: The same cuts that make other universities say ‘Ouch,’ make Southern scream.
“We’re suffering like everyone else, we’re just suffering from a different position,” Mason said.
Mason’s feeling that Southern is under attack was reinforced last year when Gov. Bobby Jindal backed a failed plan to merge Southern University at New Orleans with the University at New Orleans.
Under the plan, the newly merged institution would have joined the University of Louisiana System in an effort to free up more facilities for the growing Delgado Community College.
Mason was on the record as saying the loss or merger of SUNO could cripple the Southern University System, the only historically black college system in the country.
At the time, Mason said Southern was small enough as a system, that if SUNO were removed, there was a strong possibility the entire system would cease to exist.
In the larger picture, Southern’s mission is to serve some of the state’s poorest communities, Mason said. Getting rid of that kind of institution in New Orleans, a city that needs to provide postsecondary education to some of its poorest residents, would have had “dire implications,” he added. “Without SUNO, where would those people go?” Mason said. “It would be a disservice to that community.”
It also didn’t help that the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, or NCHEMS, studied the issue and recommended the merger. The Colorado outfit has conducted several studies of Louisiana’s higher education landscape in recent years. Earlier this year, the Louisiana Board of Regents distanced themselves from another NCHEMS report that argued that the state would have an “ideal” higher education setup if Southern didn’t exist.
The report said LSU would be the state’s flagship system, the University of Louisiana System would become a “regional university system” and the Louisiana Community and Technical College System would contain all of the state’s public two-year colleges.
State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell, this month, reinforced his position that Southern serves a unique purpose as a historically black college in educating some of the state’s most-underserved students. He said that as a show of support for the university, the Board of Regents will hold its May meeting at Southern’s Baton Rouge campus.
But budget cut after budget cut is the real threat to Southern, Mason said.
“I believe the sense is to restructure higher education,” he said. “You cut the budgets enough to force some colleges to merge and others to go out of business. There’s more of a chance that Southern will go out of business.”
Some legislators at the Capitol have said they don’t see any need for Southern to exist, Mason said, although he declined to mention any names.
“Some people don’t want to see Southern survive as a system,” Mason said. “Some people think HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) have outlived their usefulness.”
Koran Addo covers higher education for The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.