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Louisiana Insider Chosen to Lead Southern

Louisiana Insider Chosen to Lead Southern
As the new Southern University System president, Dr. Ralph Slaughter says rebuilding the New Orleans campus and bringing back accountability are first and foremost
By Scott Dyer

Taking the helm of the historically Black Southern University system in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is turning out to be a wild ride, but Dr. Ralph Slaughter is confident that he’s up to the task of running the nation’s largest HBCU system.

“As long as you’re working for somebody else, you really have to work in lockstep with their vision and their goals. But now I can take my own goals and ideas, and bring those to fruition,” says Slaughter, who had been the system’s number two administrator for nearly a decade.

Those goals include rebuilding the hurricane-ravaged Southern University at New Orleans campus, strengthening the system’s academic programs and bringing accountability to the system, which was recently rocked by a grade-buying scandal.

Slaughter, a certified public accountant who formerly served as Louisiana’s Secretary of Revenue and Taxation, was the system’s vice president for administration and management under former SU system president Leon Tarver, who retired last June.

According to Southern University board chairman Johnny Anderson, a special search committee, composed of board members, community members, faculty and a student representative, identified three finalists for the system presidency.

“They gave us the list, unranked, and we chose Dr. Slaughter,” Anderson says.

Anderson says a majority of the board agreed that Slaughter’s knowledge of the Southern system and Louisiana’s political system was a plus. A relationship with the university that spans three generations also worked in Slaughter’s favor.

Slaughter and his parents are Southern alumni, and two of his six children are currently enrolled at the university.

But Slaughter’s selection has drawn criticism from some faculty, who argue that his academic credentials are not strong enough.

Dr. Diola Bagayoka, a former faculty senate president, says that as part of its search criteria for the new president, the board chose to require that successful candidates have a sustained record of productivity in teaching, research and service.

Bagayoka says Slaughter has done little teaching or research.
“I don’t have anything against the man in particular, but I don’t believe he qualifies as having a sustained record in all three of those areas, although I will concede that he probably meets the criteria,” Bagayoka says.

But another former faculty senate president, Dr. Sudhir Trivedi, applauds Slaughter’s appointment. Trivedi grabbed headlines in 2000 by staging a hunger strike to call attention to the need for higher faculty pay. Looking back, he compliments Slaughter for the way he represented the system during the several weeks that that Trivedi fasted in a tent outside the system administration building.

“Based on my experience, I know that Ralph is a friend of the faculty,” he says.

Slaughter is perhaps best known for organizing the State Farm Bayou Classic football game. He has helped to elevate the game between Southern and Grambling University to near bowl-game status, earning national television coverage the last several years.

Now Slaughter is focusing his attention on rebuilding SUNO, which is currently holding classes in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency on 30 acres  of land at the northern end of its campus. Slaughter says his financial background will come in handy, as construction costs are estimated at between $40 million and $50 million, most of which will likely have to come from the federal government.
“We still need to clean up the SUNO buildings that went under 10 to 12 feet of water during Katrina,” Slaughter says. “But having that extra 30 acres gave us an opportunity to jump-start our recovery by allowing us to create a trailer institution.”

Before the hurricane swamped the Gulf Coast last August, SUNO had more than 4,000 students. Although most of the surrounding neighborhoods remain vacant more than six months later, an astounding 2,044 students enrolled for spring classes.

Slaughter is also focusing on upgrading the quality of the system’s academic programs. He is proposing an assessment of all four campuses: SUNO, SU-Baton Rouge, Southern University at Shreveport and the Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge. The idea is to cut weak programs and focus the limited system resources on productive ones, he says.

“We want to analyze all of the campuses’ strengths and weaknesses, so we can be more proactive in our decision,” Slaughter says.

This initiative comes two years after a grade-buying scandal rocked the campus. Slaughter first began looking into the problem after university auditors discovered conflicting academic records. In December, Cleo Carroll Jr., a 56-year-old former assistant registrar at SUBR, pleaded guilty in federal court to bribery for accepting $7,700 from several current and former students to change their official university records. (see Diverse, Dec. 1, 2005).

Slaughter says he intends to continue to maintain an open-door policy not only for students, but for faculty, staff and alumni as well.
“You’ve got to listen to people,” Slaughter says. “Even if you don’t agree with them and do what they’re asking, they at least feel like they’ve been heard, and that’s important.”

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