The chancellor of Southern University at New Orleans, who led the university through Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath and is credited with its long-awaited recovery, will step down this summer after a decade in charge.
Victor Ukpolo, 65, will leave his post June 30.
He plans to stay at the Pontchartrain Park campus to teach temporarily but in the near future will return to his home country of Nigeria, he said Tuesday.
A search will begin soon for his successor.
“I am truly grateful to America, the Southern University system and SUNO for giving me an opportunity to lead this university for the past 10 years,” Ukpolo said. “It is my hope that I still have some productive years to give back to my homeland.”
Ukpolo’s tenure has been marked by major obstacles and controversies, from the 2005 flood damage and subsequent enrollment drop to a widely decried legislative push to merge SUNO with the nearby University of New Orleans and denunciations of a university decision to move professors into a once flood-ravaged building in 2008.
SUNO, under his leadership, also saw its admissions standards rise due to state mandate — a hardship for a university that prides itself on educating underserved public high school graduates not ready for many higher-ranked colleges. It has struggled to graduate students on time — with a four-year graduation rate that has at times been among the lowest in the nation — partly because of students’ lack of achievement but also due to many working students’ inability to attend full-time classes.
But there also have been victories. The university wooed its students home more speedily than had been projected after Katrina, and several buildings have been renovated.
Ukpolo expressed thanks Tuesday for the ability to lead through it all.
“As I leave my post as chancellor, I wish the university and the Southern system well. I still will be here to serve SUNO and the system — just in a different capacity — as I make my gradual transition back to Nigeria,” he said.
Ukpolo said he arrived in the U.S. “44 years ago as a young man with $200 in my pocket.” He worked his way up from a job as a dishwasher, eventually settling in academia in various administrative roles. He served as the Southern University system’s vice president for academic and student affairs before becoming SUNO chancellor in 2006, the year after Katrina.
Other officials credit Ukpolo with rebuilding SUNO’s campus and laud his aggressive marketing and reorganization campaign, which included the creation of four online programs to attract displaced students.
Though initial projections were that only 1,500 of SUNO’s 3,600 students would return post-disaster, more than 2,100 came back to complete classes in federally provided trailers, officials said.
Also praised on Tuesday were the renovations to the school’s University Center and other buildings during Ukpolo’s tenure. A dual-enrollment program that allows high school students to earn college credits at SUNO also was touted.
Ray Belton, the Southern system’s president and chancellor, said Ukpolo was at the helm “during some particularly challenging times” and called his leadership “nothing short of heroic.”
Similarly, Leon Tarver, chairman of the system’s board of supervisors, said Ukpolo “has without a doubt been a true asset to the university.”
However, that board last month discussed Ukpolo’s job performance in a specially called review.
Last year, there were revelations of health woes among faculty members who were moved in 2008 from temporary Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers into the university’s Multipurpose Building. Although a state-appointed environmental assessor deemed a private firm’s remediation of that building sufficient, remediators did not properly address the black mold found in two dozen interior air samples, experts told nola.com last year.
Four employees who worked in that building — Sudipta Das, 60; Felix James, 76; Guillarne Leary, 72; and Marina Dumas-Haynes, 57 — all died by February 2014, though their official causes of death were unrelated to mold exposure.
While some professors blamed Ukpolo for moving too slowly to address the problem, he said SUNO never placed its faculty’s or students’ lives at risk and pointed out that the state approved the building before it was reoccupied. The building has since been slated for demolition.
A 2011 push by some lawmakers and Gov. Bobby Jindal to merge SUNO with UNO was heavily criticized by SUNO officials as well as alumni and some local government officials. That bid failed, as did a subsequent push to merge the two institutions in 2015.
Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.