Southern University’s Interim Chancellor Trying to Retain Students

BATON ROUGE La.

Margaret Ambrose may only be the “interim” chancellor of Southern University, but that does not mean she is just keeping a seat warm.

Ambrose has been in charge since May. But the former executive vice chancellor has already embarked on a full-fledged student retention “crusade.”

The big question is whether Ambrose, who is in her 35th year at Southern, will remain chancellor long enough to see that crusade through.

With no answer in sight, Ambrose said, she is pressing on.

When Southern’s student enrollment dropped 3 percent this fall, Ambrose saw the problem was not in freshmen recruitment.

Ambrose said she saw that the problem is not attracting students to Southern. Rather, it is keeping them there until they graduate.

In the past, Southern has placed much more emphasis on recruitment than on retention.

Southern is losing more than a quarter of its students before their second year. Southern’s freshman retention rate is 73.2 percent and the six-year graduation rate is only 27.7 percent, both of which are on the rise, according to school statistics.

Ambrose is working on a campus-wide “Retention Blueprint” that will eventually set specific goals for every academic department and each university office.

The pending plan also includes more student activities on campus and more student tutoring, she said.

“I’m trying to raise the consciousness of the entire SUBR family,” Ambrose said. “It’s not just going to be a haphazard effort. Results won’t happen overnight, but we have to begin immediately.”

Southern University Board of Supervisors Chairman Johnny Anderson said Ambrose’s aggressive efforts are catching people’s attention.

Although there has been turmoil between the board and Southern University System President Ralph Slaughter, Anderson said Ambrose’s leadership of Southern’s flagship campus has become a steadying force.

“She’s the very rare person in academia with strong integrity who works well with both the faculty and the board,” Anderson said. “If it was left up to me, she would be the chancellor permanently.”

But it is not just up to Anderson.

Slaughter and the board will decide whether to conduct a national search or to simply remove the “interim” label from Ambrose’s title.

“There’s no discussions on the horizon now,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ambrose is tightlipped about her interest in keeping the chancellor position, adding that she is “not at all sure” how long she will be chancellor.

Ambrose refused to say if she would take the job if offered. But Ambrose said she would not apply for the job if there is a national search.

Staying out of limelight Besides her own job uncertainty, Ambrose has had to walk a tightrope to avoid the chaos that was going on around her.

The past year has seen Anderson fight off sexual harassment allegations and Slaughter sue the board after he was placed on a two-month suspension. Slaughter’s lawsuit has since been settled.

“I take my cue from the faculty and staff and students,” Ambrose said, “and they have said to me that, no matter what is going on around us, Southern University Baton Rouge is moving forward.”

Ambrose said she is well aware she can could face attacks at any time because she is in a prominent position.

But that will not stop progress, she said.

Southern Faculty Senate President Erma Borskey said she is impressed with the stability Ambrose has brought.

“The word interim does not imply stability,” Borskey said. “But Ms. Ambrose’s leadership and experience is what we need at this time.”

A history in the making There may be turmoil at Southern now, but Ambrose said it does not compare to when she first came to Southern in 1972 as a young English professor.

That year saw the shooting deaths of two students on campus during student protests of the state’s poor funding of Southern and discontent with the school’s administration.

It was never proven whether the shots were fired by law enforcement and the campus was shut down for nearly two months.

“It was a very traumatic time for a young faculty person in the English department, and a time that I will never forget,” Ambrose said.

A Bunkie native, she grew up a literature junkie and graduated from Grambling State University.

She later earned her master’s degree at Indiana University, where she said she was the only black person in many classes and often being looked down upon for her skin color.

From Indiana, she came to Southern and Ambrose became active in the Faculty Senate under the faculty leadership of Dolores Spikes, who would later become president of Southern.

Ambrose helped develop Southern’s first African-American literature course.

“We were busy trying to be a voice of the faculty at that time,” Ambrose said of her efforts with her mentor Spikes.

“Never, not in a million years, did I think I’d ever become chancellor,” Ambrose said.

Regardless of her personal plans, Ambrose slowly moved toward her current job one position at a time. She did so mostly following Spikes’ lead.

Spikes became assistant to the chancellor and Ambrose soon became assistant to the vice chancellor of academic affairs.

“Dr. Spikes felt that we, perhaps, could do more to help faculty and staff and students if we were inside the administration,” Ambrose said.

She continued on the path until she became executive vice chancellor in 2005. When Chancellor Ed Jackson stepped down this year, Ambrose took over the same day.

Unsure about the future, Ambrose said she is too focused on Southern in the present to worry.

–Associated Press



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