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Southern U. in Baton Rouge Nearing the ‘Point of Crisis’

Deep state budget cuts, forced by falling state revenue and a new focus on performance-based funding, is pushing Southern University of Baton Rouge (SUBR) to the “point of crisis” in its ability to function, says the school’s chancellor, Dr. Kofi Lomotey.

“We don’t see light at the end of the tunnel,” Lomotey said in a recent telephone interview. “It’s not a new situation, but it’s reaching a point of crisis,” says Lomotey, who took the helm of SUBR 18 months ago.

SUBR, a historically Black institution with some 7,000 plus students, is the flagship campus of the Southern University system, one of four state-controlled higher education systems in Louisiana.

Nearly all the state’s public colleges and universities have seen state funding slashed over the past year and a half—including $250 million last year—as the petroleum-tax-revenue-based state has seen gas prices falling from the nearly $4 a gallon price around the nation nearly two years ago.

“The folks in Louisiana have had money when other states have not,” said Dr. Belle Wheelan, president of the Atlanta-based Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, referring to Louisiana’s economically flush days when gas prices were high and revenues flowed in.

“They’ve come in hard to make cuts right away. It’s painful,” says Wheelan, who serves on the Postsecondary Education Review Commission, a special task force in Louisiana assigned to study and recommend improvements in the state’s public higher education system.

The overall cuts are compounded, Lomotey says, due to the stepped-up imposition of new performance-based formulas.

Some state education officials have been toying with such an idea during much of the past decade, hoping to devise a sort of bonus funding mechanism for schools that improved based on a number of measures, including retention and graduation rates. There was a consensus among most officials that, once such a funding formula was adopted, it would be imposed over a number of years to give schools time to adapt to the new funding process.

However, when Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a staunch advocate of outcomes-based funding, took office several years ago, he moved the performance-based agenda into high gear. State officials decided to begin using the performance funding formula in the 2009-10 school year, with approximately one-third of the state’s higher education budget allocated to schools based on the new performance formula.

Next school year, two-thirds of the reduced state funds for most four-year schools will be allocated based on the outcomes formula. The following year, it will increase to 100 percent, or all state funding for higher education.

“The formula is like apples and oranges for Southern,” said State Sen. Sharon Weston Broome, whose legislative district includes SUBR.

“The way the formula is presently established does put universities like Southern at a grave disadvantage,” adds Broome, noting that none of the state’s studies or formulas take into consideration the historical underfunding or special role of minority-serving schools such as Southern.

Lomotey, one of the few college CEOs in the state to question the wisdom of the deep cuts for higher education, says “our situation right now is we’re in dire straits.”

In response to funding cuts to date, SUBR has dropped more than 100 classes; frozen most salaries; laid off temporary, full–time and part-time faculty; and reduced salaries for summer faculty by 20 percent, Lomotey says. It has also cut its executive ranks, including two vice chancellors.

Lomotey said faculty and department heads are also working with undergraduate seniors on a “case-by-case” basis to determine whether those hoping to graduate this spring and are affected by the class cancellations can take comparable courses for credit at nearby Louisiana State University or Baton Rouge Community College.

Meanwhile, the school has initiated a comprehensive review of all programs and is developing a plan to enhance its recruiting and retention efforts.

Even with those steps, Lomotey says, SUBR may be forced to seek special relief, if cuts keep coming at the level and pace they have of late.

“Everyone’s taking their share of cuts,” Lomotey says. “The other campuses are suffering also. But we are the flagship.”

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