Across Louisiana, autumn has brought a season of transition to the state’s historically black universities.

The Southern University Board of Supervisors recently opted not to extend the contract of SU System President Ronald Mason, who had wrangled with the board over how much authority he should have in managing individual campuses. Mason has long argued that, with declining resources and challenges with enrollment, Southern’s campuses have to do a better job at focusing on what they do best.

Southern’s flagship campus in Baton Rouge has an interim chancellor, Flandus McClinton, following James Llorens’ exit from the chancellor’s post. Llorens had clashed with Mason on management issues.

At Xavier University in New Orleans, a historically black Catholic institution headed by President Norman Francis since 1968, Francis recently announced that he’ll retire next year.

Meanwhile, at Dillard University, a private, historically black institution serving New Orleans since 1869, President Walter Kimbrough has launched a new strategic plan for the campus.

Although they’re markedly different in many ways, historically black universities in Louisiana and elsewhere are facing a common question. In the 21st century, are schools originally created to answer Jim Crow segregation still relevant?

Kimbrough, in a recent meeting with The Advocate’s editorial board, suggested that the answer is best found in the marketplace.

He framed the issue as one of choice, conceding that while historically black institutions might not be the right fit for all students of color, they can be ideal for others seeking college degrees.

The key test of Dillard’s appeal, Kimbrough added, will involve a national, as well as a regional, constituency. “We’re going to have to be more of a national player,” he said. Before Hurricane Katrina, about half of Dillard’s student body came from out of state. That figure now stands at closer to 35 percent, a legacy of storm-related destruction that disrupted Dillard’s dorm capacity. Before Katrina, Dillard had about 2,100 students. Enrollment today stands at about 1,200, and Kimbrough said the university ideally should have an enrollment of at least 1,400.

He said the university’s strategic plan should help it identify marquee programs that have the biggest potential to attract students. Dillard’s nursing and physics programs seem likely to emerge as draws.

“Nursing has always been a calling card,” Kimbrough said. He said Dillard also is among the top historically black colleges and universities in the physics degrees it awards.

As the movie industry grows in Louisiana, the film editing instruction in Dillard’s mass communication department has added value, too.

Louisiana’s historically black institutions of higher learning have a long history of helping students succeed. Those successes expanded choices for today’s students, and it’s in this environment that historically black universities must now compete.

That competition, however challenging, is the best way for any university to reach its potential.