JSU’s Mason Ready for Challenges at Southern

A stream of criticism has followed Jackson State University President Ronald Mason since his controversial “unification” proposal for merging three of Mississippi’s HBCUs was leaked to the media last winter. And now Mason is on his way to Louisiana.

To many observers in Mississippi, the timing of Mason’s hiring as president of the five-campus Southern University System seems impeccable.

Critics hammered Mason because of his proposal — which called for Alcorn State, Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State universities to merge — and because he was privately circulating his idea while publicly condemning Gov. Haley Barbour’s similar, budget-cutting plan to merge those schools. Neither idea went beyond the stage of stirring protest, but Mason left alumni, students, faculty and Black state legislators seething over what appeared to be a stealth move.

“I don’t think it was time to leave but I had some concern that the focus became on me than on the future of the HBCUs,” Mason says. “I think a conversation has started that may change the consciousness and concern for Mississippi HBCUs.”

But Mason admits the SU job came at an ideal time for him and his family. “There was no relation between the two,” the New Orleans native says. “Only, perhaps that the noise reminded me that 10 years is a long time to be a president in this day and age. I like the idea of a new challenge, going home and working with a system.”

Before becoming president of JSU, Mason held administrative positions at Tulane University, including senior vice president and general counsel and vice president for finance and operations.

Mason’s campus unification ideas appealed to Southern University at Baton Rouge Chancellor Kofi Lomotey, who says he is “pleased and excited” that Mason was selected as the new president. “His ideas are not dissimilar from what we have here in Louisiana with the five campuses. It is my understanding that he was trying to save the institutions (in Mississippi).”

But Dr. Lomotey says he supported Mason for other reasons. Lomotey says finding alternative funding sources, especially federal research grants, is one of the top challenges facing the SU System. He believes Mason’s success in obtaining federal funding at JSU will be an asset to the SU System.

Mason’s recent appointment to President Barack Obama’s Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities “certainly doesn’t hurt,” Lomotey says.

Mason was reluctant to name specific problems he will tackle at SU. However, he says, “it seems vulnerable on several fronts. I think the ultimate question will be how serious Southern is about re-creating itself as a model for the next generation of HBCUs.”

In Lomotey’s view, low student retention and graduation rates, aging faculty and lackluster marketing, “all of which point directly or indirectly to funding,” are SU’s top challenges.

In general, Mason says HBCUs face daunting and, in some cases, insurmountable difficulties. “The challenges are real and the lack of access to private wealth makes life difficult,” Mason says. He is blunt about prospects for some institutions that fail to be proactive about facing fiscal realities.

“Some will remain in name but cease to be educational and economic bases for Black people,” he says.

Before he arrived at JSU, Mason was known for his efforts in New Orleans to link college campuses to urban development. He served as executive director of the Tulane-Xavier National Center for the Urban Community in New Orleans, which coordinated the two universities’ involvement in public housing, economic development and public education.

Mason presented a robust résumé to the SU search team, which board members said catapulted him to the top of the candidates’ list. According to Mississippi’s Higher Education Board, his accomplishments at JSU included:

Increasing enrollment to nearly 8,800 students, a 28.5 percent increase from fall 2000 to fall 2009 enrollment;

Increasing external funding from $38 million in 2000 to $66 million in 2009;

Increasing the number of annual graduates from 1,000 in 2001 to 1,350 in 2009;

Increasing student retention by 13 percent during his tenure; and

Establishing the Center for University Scholars to provide research opportunities for faculty.

“Ron Mason is the perfect candidate to lead the SU system,” says Tony Clayton, chairman of the SU Board of Supervisors. “He has a unique grasp of the mission of land-grant universities and a passion for that mission.”

As president, Mason will oversee the five campuses in the SU system: Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Shreveport, the law school and an agricultural center.

“I very much look forward to working with him,” Lomotey says. “We need someone who leads by example, and he has done that.”

However, all arms are not so wide open to welcome Mason in Louisiana. Dr. William Arp III, a political science professor at the Baton Rouge campus, criticized Mason during the selection process. “Mr. Mason’s arrival at Southern University comes with baggage that may be real or imagined,” Arp says.

However, he adds that “the faculty hopes for and expects a strong and energetic advocate for Southern University’s continuing role in higher education in the state of Louisiana, the nation, and the world.”

In Jackson, in the immediate wake of the announcement that Mason was leaving, there was a generally subdued “good for him and good for Jackson State” response in random media interviews, with most respondents mentioning the fallout from the imbroglio to merge the three Mississippi schools under an entity Mason had provisionally named Jacobs State.

Dr. Safiya Omari, an assistant professor in JSU’s School of Social Work, points to positive and negative aspects of Mason’s leadership. “His tenure has benefited Jackson State in so many ways. You can see the transformation of the campus from 10 years ago. He has always been willing to work outside the box and he doesn’t say ‘we have never done it that way before.’ On the other hand, he exhibited quite a bit of naivete about the politics of change at HBCUs when he made his (unification) proposal. That was surprising.”

Despite the caustic tone of some of the criticism he withstood in recent months, Mason says he “enjoyed every day of work” at JSU. When asked to discuss the high and low points of his Jackson State presidency, he says,  “I guess the high point was when faculty and staff spontaneously brought checks up to the stage at a faculty/staff convocation to support the Campaign for Jackson State; I guess the low point will be the day I leave.”