New Southern University Chancellor James Llorens made a splash this month when one of his first key actions in office was to send out a memo saying the university might need to declare a state of financial emergency, called exigency.
The memo came at a time when most colleges in the state were relatively satisfied that they managed to avoid drastic budget cuts during the legislative session that ended in June. Southern still found itself in a roughly $10 million budget hole, largely because of chronically shrinking enrollment and growing expenses.
“We must do whatever is necessary to balance the budget,” Llorens wrote in the July 6 memo during his first week on the job. “Our next steps will involve terminating additional staff and possibly declaring a financial emergency, followed by combining, merging and terminating some academic programs and subsequently the termination of some affected faculty. I know that these are drastic actions, but our situation is critical and such actions may be required.”
That quickly set a scary tone, especially regarding exigency, which would allow Llorens to more easily terminate tenured and tenure-track faculty. Although Llorens said he wanted to avoid exigency, the language was still ominous.
Exigency, after all, is the equivalent of a scarlet letter on a college campus. It can frighten away potential students and professors.
But fast forward two weeks, and the mood shifted to a relative “Kumbaya” by the campfire, at least on the surface.
At last week’s Southern Board of Supervisors meeting, news was guaranteed to be generated when “Discussion of SUBR budget” was a late addition to the agenda.
Southern Faculty Senate President Sudhir Trivedi started the meeting off with the bold move of announcing the faculty may accept furloughs — unpaid time off — of up to 10 percent of their pay.
Trivedi, who has often been combative with Southern’s leadership, said the two big caveats were that administrators and staff take the same reductions and that any exigency proposal be taken off the table.
During nearly three years of budget cuts, Southern’s furloughs thus far have not extended to tenured and tenure-track faculty.
Llorens described faculty furloughs as “the key” to solving the budget problem in the short term. He also insisted the “intent” is to avoid exigency.
Southern Student Government Association President Demetrius Sumner, who is entering his second year leading the student body, said he even supports increasing the university’s student athletics fee and creating a new university excellence fee on students to help offset the budget problems.
Also, everyone talked positively about working well with each other during behind-the-scenes budget discussions.
While there will certainly always be some arguing and brinksmanship, the board meeting seemed to demonstrate key progress from the early, more dire warnings.
None of that makes for harmony and hand-holding though.
Southern officials still have a lot of work to do prior to the anticipated Aug. 26 budget approval by the Southern board.
“We’re going to have to redesign this university,” Llorens said last week, “redesign the academic offerings … and we’re going to have to do it quickly.”
He added, “We do know there are going to be furloughs; we do know there are going to be layoffs.”
So tough decisions are imminent.
But at least it appears momentum is being gained.