Ray Belton entered the doors of Southern University in Shreveport without much plan other than taking a few classes with his GI Bill benefits. He found there not only a degree but a lifelong affection for Southern’s campuses and long service to them.
Now, he’s the first person in decades to combine the roles of president and chancellor of the Southern main campus and its system — and thus its spokesman on the influential panel of system presidents who advise the Board of Regents, the top college board.
What Belton needs to be, though, is less ambassador for Southern than agent of change there. And tough changes are needed in a time of generally declining enrollment and cuts in state aid that sank the Southern careers of former Chancellor Jim Llorens and President Ron Mason.
Llorens continues to work locally in education, and Mason took a campus job out of state. But that two such capable men ran afoul of the internal politics of the famously factionalized system and campus should signal to their successor that he can’t afford to live with business as usual.
Very soon, there might be buyers’ remorse from the Southern board and its larger community over Belton’s elevation over White House official Ivory Toldson, a younger and more dynamic choice.
For the moment, Belton told the Press Club of Baton Rouge that he is doing the requisite outreach to alumni groups and the business community here, and that he is seeking to push down to the campus level some of the system jobs. Mason had earlier pushed for consolidation of “back office” services at the system, so perhaps that is a reversal of policy.
Yet as the Baton Rouge main campus faces tough questions about its future, even the best-intentioned rearranging of the deck chairs isn’t going to do much about the holes below the waterline. Fewer than 7,000 students, a diminished profile in higher education — hardly alone among historically black campuses — and a failure to capitalize on its HBCU status in terms of grants and other external funding mean that Southern is one of the state’s low-performing assets.
With just a bit of support, the campus now at maybe 40 percent of its capacity as an economic and social engine could be a lot more — not as big to Baton Rouge as LSU, but still a significant asset.
Trouble is, it’s difficult to see where the money is going to come from to give Belton a fighting chance to fix urgent problems. The shabbiness of the campus is one of his concerns, because curb appeal is obviously lacking for recruitment and cuts in state aid have tended to fall on maintenance.
Most campuses facing budget deficits, not only Southern, cut support staff — except those staffers from politically connected families, of course. It is often the campus counselors who first get laid off, and those are vital to keeping students at Southern on track for degrees. Alumni giving is up, Belton said; scholarships are obviously vital in an era when enrollment drives the budget. The state is unlikely to be very generous to any campus anytime soon; private giving from the business community might help, but there is intense competition for those dollars.
So much needing doing will test the resourcefulness of not only Belton but the larger Southern community.
Bob Dorroh: Services were Saturday for the former LSU professor and activist, a pillar of the Unitarian Church for many years and one of its leading activists in Together Baton Rouge, among many other community endeavors. His constructive leadership will be missed.