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Southern University Chancellor Sees Challenges

BATON ROUGE, La. – Upcoming university layoffs and academic program cuts loomed over last week’s Southern University National Alumni Conference in Baton Rouge.

New Southern Chancellor James Llorens, who has been on the job one week, said Thursday that declaring a state of financial emergency, called exigency, is a last-step resort, but it must remain on the table.

Tough decisions must be made in the next few weeks, Llorens said, as the university prepares to submit its budget with up to $8 million in new cuts because of declining enrollment numbers and the state’s performance-based funding formula.

For now, he is not releasing details.

“We have some challenging days ahead,” Llorens said during a “State of the University” address to hundreds of alumni.

“The circumstances are dictating that we have to evolve and make some changes, to preserve our history and protect the future,” Llorens said. “I believe we will succeed.”

Llorens also sent out a memo to faculty and staff warning of the potential, upcoming actions.

Southern has had faculty layoffs the past two years during budget cuts. But tenured and tenure-track faculty have not yet been affected, Llorens said. That may now change and furloughs may be implemented as well, he said.

“We must do whatever is necessary to balance the budget,” Llorens wrote in the memo. “Our next steps will involve terminating additional staff and possibly declaring a financial emergency, followed by combining, merging and terminating some academic programs and subsequently the termination of some affected faculty.

“I know that these are drastic actions, but our situation is critical and such actions may be required,” he wrote.

Southern also will again offer retirement incentive plans to some faculty and staff, Llorens said.

Southern University System President Ronald Mason Jr. said Southern’s other campuses are doing well. But he compared the flagship Baton Rouge campus to a critical-care patient.

“A once healthy, robust, largest historically Black university in the country, is now just a shadow of its former self,” Mason said.

Southern has roughly 100,000 alumni, he said, but only about 1 percent donate to the university.

While most universities in Louisiana are having their budget cuts offset by 10 percent tuition increases, the tuition hikes at Southern fall well short of balancing the budget, mostly because of enrollment problems and other costs, Llorens said.

A university that once had more than 10,000 students now enrolls more than 7,300 students. Llorens said the university must reverse that trend.

“We were already operating at a very bare-bones budget,” Llorens said.

Southern Faculty Senate President Sudhir Trivedi said the “faculty has already been cut beyond the bone” and that declaring “financial exigency” would only “serve to demoralize the faculty and the institution.”

Officially declaring financial exigency allows universities to more easily lay off tenured faculty.

Trivedi said the amount of budget cuts is surprising and that faculty should be more involved in the process of examining the budgetary numbers.

Mason, who took over the Southern System last year, said his first year was spent “stopping the bleeding” through his Project Positive Direction focus on improving finances, technology and more.

Now, Southern has to reposition itself as a 21st century model and rebuild its enrollment, Mason said.

Southern is thriving in areas like nursing and engineering, Mason said, “but the bright spots are getting lost.”

“Here’s the prognosis: remains to be seen,” Mason said.

He said Southern succeeded during the legislative session in defeating efforts to “dismantle” Southern and to merge Southern University at New Orleans with the University of New Orleans.

Mason warned that Gov. Bobby Jindal would try to push the merger again next year.

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