Southern University System President Ronald Mason and James Llorens, chancellor of Southern’s Baton Rouge campus, have said a declaration of financial exigency is necessary to restore the Baton Rouge university to financial health.
“We can assure students that their education is going to be made better by this,” Llorens said after the Southern University Board of Supervisors declared financial exigency on the Baton Rouge campus last week.
We hope Llorens is right, and we believe a strong case can be made that financial exigency for Southern’s main campus in Baton Rouge is an appropriate step. Exigency is basically a declaration of financial emergency that will allow Southern’s leaders more latitude to furlough and lay off faculty as well as terminate academic programs.
That gives Llorens, Mason and their management team a lot more authority to reshape Southern for the future, but with that power comes additional responsibility to manage this crisis well.
Southern has suffered declining enrollment and state financial support, and given those challenges, some programs on campus probably aren’t viable anymore. This declaration of financial exigency might be compared to painful surgery that’s necessary to save an ailing patient.
But that pain won’t be easy to bear for those who stand to be affected by this declaration of financial exigency. Talented, capable, tenured members of the faculty could be on the chopping block.
Tenure helps safeguard academic freedom at institutions of higher learning and allows faculty members the stability they require for long-term research. Any measure that compromises tenure should be considered as an option of last resort, which is why financial exigency is such an unusual move on college campuses. Before Southern’s recent action, no public Louisiana university had declared exigency since the University of New Orleans did so after Hurricane Katrina.
Exigency usually is considered a blemish that could scare away current and potential employees and students. But a recent report from Moody’s Investor Service concluded declaring financial exigency can be a positive step in restoring an institution to stability.
We’re glad the Southern declaration of financial exigency has an end date of June 30. No institution should work under this shadow indefinitely.
Financial exigency is a powerful tool that must be used wisely. We hope it isn’t used to silence faculty or staff members who have been critical of the university’s policies and practices. Even though the purpose of exigency is to implement difficult choices more quickly, we hope university leaders will allow some time for public questions and input before these choices are finalized.
There is simply no way to implement such changes while making everyone happy. But when the public is given a chance to consider these changes and offer comment, the public will have more confidence in the decisions university leaders make.
The Southern Board didn’t set a good precedent in this regard by waiting until shortly before its recent meeting to add the matter of financial exigency to its agenda, although Llorens had mentioned publicly that exigency might be considered at the meeting.
We hope the declaration of financial exigency helps to mend Southern, not end it. A strong Southern University is in the best interest of Baton Rouge — and Louisiana, too.