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Déjà Vu in the Bayou

Déjà Vu in the Bayou

Demotion of Black administrators and promotion of White administrators results in allegations of racism.

BATON ROUGE, La. — Allegations of racism are once again surfacing at Baton Rouge Community College, but this time they are directed at a White chancellor instead of an African American one.
Interim Chancellor Dr. Sammie Cosper, a former Louisiana state commissioner of higher education, acknowledged that his reorganization plan at the college has caused racial sparks because it involved the demotion of several Black administrators and the promotion of several Whites.
“I had a meeting with some faculty members who accused me of being racist,” Cosper, who is White, told the governing board of the state’s new Community and Technical College System last month.
Despite the reservations of two Black board members, Cosper’s plan was added to the board agenda as an emergency item and given final approval. The plan basically creates a new tier of four vice chancellors between the chancellor and the school’s dean, several of whom are African American. The proposal calls for the demotion of a Black woman who was formerly the school’s top administrator for academic affairs. As a result of Sandra Williams’ demotion to dean for academic support services, she will receive a pay cut from $72,500 to $67,500 per year.
Several board members acknowledged that they had received anonymous letters complaining about Cosper’s administrative shakeup.
One of the unsigned letters says Cosper’s plan showed a “blatant disregard for Black administrators,” while a second letter claimed that the reorganization involved “demotions for practically all Black administrators” who had previously reported directly to the chancellor.
The previous chancellor, Dr. Marion Bonaparte, an African American, was fired in August amid charges of discrimination by several White faculty members (see Black Issues, Aug. 19, 1999). Bonaparte claimed that several of the complaining White faculty members were seeking revenge. One of the White faculty members had been accused of using a racial epithet, while a second had been reportedly caught serenading a female student as she sat between his legs.
In addition to the faculty complaints, problems with the school’s financial record keeping were also a factor in Bonaparte’s dismissal.
In pitching his reorganization plan to the board, Cosper said the anonymous letters are a sign that there are still serious racial tensions at the one and a half year-old school.
“There are some problems over there, and part of the problems are what you are experiencing,” Cosper told the board.
No one showed up at the Dec. 9 board meeting to protest the shakeup, but that may have been because Cosper’s reorganization plan was added as an emergency item in the middle of the meeting.
One Black board member, Ava Guidry, says she had been contacted by several concerned employees at the college, but had told them earlier in the week that the reorganization was not on the board agenda and would probably not be discussed.
And Guidry reminded the board that Baton Rouge Community College was created as part of the 1994 desegregation settlement in the long-running federal lawsuit over racial discrimination at Louisiana’s public colleges.
For that reason, the racial complaints could cause problems with the federal judge who is still presiding over the settlement, she says.
“Nothing may come of this — I hope to God nothing does,” Guidry says.
But Cosper told the board that it would be awkward to delay the reorganization for a month because he will be overseas on vacation during the board’s next board meeting in January.
Cosper insisted that the reorganization was needed because the school’s former structure was a “screwed up organization.”
“Bonaparte moved things around — when he got ticked off at somebody, he took duties away from them and gave them to someone else,” Cosper says.
Cosper denied that his shakeup was racially motivated. He noted that a search is underway for a new permanent chancellor, who will be able to hire three of the four newly created vice chancellor jobs.
One of the new vice chancellor slots is being left vacant, and two others are filled temporarily, Cosper says.
Bruce Stahl, who is White, has agreed to serve as vice chancellor for academic and student affairs until he leaves the school in June, Cosper says. And Melvin Davis, an African American who is temporarily serving as the vice chancellor for finances, is on loan from the Community and Technical College System office to help straighten up the school’s financial records.
Only Ben Peabody, who is White and was appointed as vice chancellor for institutional advancement, is permanent, Cosper says.
“And quite frankly, the vice chancellor’s title is designed to help [Peabody] when he’s out fundraising,” Cosper says.
Several Black faculty and staff members who acknowledged that they sent the anonymous letters say they did not want to be identified for fear of retribution.   

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