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Southern University Faculty Bristles Over Faculty Appointment

Dr. Lisa Delpit is beginning a professorship at Southern University’s Baton Rouge campus in the middle of a rancorous dispute between faculty and administrators.

The debate has centered on the chancellor’s appointment of the renowned scholar and author to a $120,000-a-year position that was supposed to have been funded by a $2 million endowment.

Problem is: No money was raised for the endowment, so state funds will pay her salary in the College of Education as dozens of employees are being laid off amid budget cuts.

The average full professor at Southern earns about $60,000 a year, according to faculty senate President Sudhir Trivedi, who, with the support of other faculty, has launched an attack against Delpit’s appointment.

Delpit, a MacArthur “Genius Award” recipient, has written extensively on urban education. Trivedi said he has great respect for Delpit’s accomplishments but said the way administration handled her appointment and salary are “demoralizing” amid such hardship.

“We need professors to teach classes and we don’t have the money to pay them. We have facilities that need repairs and there is no money for that. This is a case of misplaced priorities,” Trivedi said, adding that it is an example of “reckless” decisions made at the administrative level without input from faculty. SUBR Chancellor Kofi Lomotey defends his decision to hire Delpit and said the system’s board of supervisors and President Ronald Mason approved the appointment.

“My argument is that at the same time we are downsizing, we have to be looking to the future,” Lomotey says. “In my mind it is a critical hire because the challenges we face in our College of Education dictate that we need a new remedy and she is a critical part of that remedy.”

The standard search process was not applied to Delpit and she was not interviewed by other faculty before being hired, a move Lomotey said was wrong.

“I have acknowledged those wrongs and I have said I would not do it that way in the future,” he said. “It was a matter of timing and the uniqueness of the opportunity to bring her on campus that made it necessary to do it this way.”

By timing, Lomotey said other institutions aggressively wooed Delpit and if Southern didn’t hire her she would have gone elsewhere. His explanation puzzled some observers, however, because Delpit spent the past year as a visiting lecturer at Southern.

That arrangement allowed Delpit to teach at Southern while she was on sabbatical from Florida International University. Southern paid half of her $160,000 salary and FIU paid the other half. Trivedi says Southern paid her salary last year from federal Title III funds.

Delpit says she was “certainly surprised” to find out what other professors earned at Southern. “I can understand why people are so upset. I totally agree that the salaries are ridiculously low,” she says. Delpit also says she would be willing to join other faculty in pressing for fairer compensation. She added that she plans to create a fund to help her colleagues attend conferences and career=development programs.

Delpit teaches one course in the College of Education, is tasked with helping the college improve its curriculum and acts as a liaison between the college and its laboratory school.


An Arsenal of Faculty Complaints

Several additional factors have complicated this issue. First, Delpit’s brother, Joseph Delpit, is a member of the SU Foundation board of directors, the organization that raises money for the SU system. Delpit said her brother played no part in her appointment at Southern and discouraged her from accepting it.

But the critics cite nepotism and point to another recent instance of alleged favoritism toward officials’ relatives. A new position was created and a board member’s son was moved into the job from another position and given a $15,000 raise — again, the faculty leaders said, there was no search or job announcement.

Mason said the position did not require a search or announcement and that the promotion was merited. “There was a history of his name coming up in the past for a promotion or raise,” Mason said in an e-mail response to Diverse. “None has ever been approved because of his father’s position.  We decided to recommend him based on merit despite the possible fallout.” Mason also said the employee’s father withdrew himself from discussion of the matter.

Adding to the faculty’s complaints, the SU board of supervisors approved a recommendation from Mason that allows a new employee to be hired or a current employee to receive a raise without board approval if the proposed amount is under $100,000. The previous limit was $50,000. This was another move the faculty senate opposed, saying it doesn’t see the salary proposals unless and until they require board approval.

Senate Vice President Thomas Miller said faculty asked for these decisions to be delayed to allow for more discussion but said his request was denied. “We have let go 30 percent of staff since last year — the people who cut the grass, clean the bathrooms — these are people making $15,000 a year.” Miller also says a number of professors were promoted from assistant to associate level without additional compensation.

Mason defended the salary-approval change, saying it was “simply for administrative efficiency. The board should be involved in setting policy and not day-to-day management issues. The over-$100,000 salary line plus approval of officers and deans is a reasonable level of board oversight.” 

He added, “We are being as open as honest as we can be. Everything we do is public and open to scrutiny from all quarters. Part of my job is to make sometimes unpopular decisions or recommendations to the board.  There are clearly some trust issues here.  However I believe we will be able to work through them if we are all guided by one basic principle, and that is that whatever we do is good for the Southern System.”

But the faculty leaders remain firm in their opposition “There is no place left for us to go except to the governor’s office and the Legislature,” Trivedi says, “and we are prepared to do that.”

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