A. O. Williams Hall on the campus of the Southern University Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Baton Rouge. (Photo courtesy Southern University)
The flagship of the nation’s only historically Black college and university system will get its own president again after the position was consolidated with the main campus’ chancellor position in 2015 due to budget constraints.
The Southern University System Board of Supervisors voted in September to split the positions. A search committee for a new chancellor met for the first time Friday. Its membership, made up of administrators, faculty, staff, students and community members, aims to install a new chancellor by summer 2024.
Dennis Shields, Southern’s current president-chancellor, will continue his work as system president.
The consolidation became necessary eight years ago when Louisiana reached the peak of a self-inflicted budget crisis during former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration. It was brought on by large corporate tax cuts and industry subsidies without corresponding revenue increases to offset them.
State aid to higher education was reduced more than 55% as a result of the Jindal budget cuts, leaving a hole in the budget that had to be mended with increased tuition and fees that climbed at some campuses more than 100%.
Southern University faced the additional constraint of decades of underfunding for HBCUs.
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While a catastrophe of that scale is not on the radar, problems for funding the state’s universities could be on the horizon. A temporary 0.45% state sales tax expires in 2025, which economists forecast will lead to a $400 million revenue loss.
While the legislature could renew the sales tax, it is far from certain. Both chambers have a Republican super majority and their anticipated leaders, Sen. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, and Rep. Phillip Devillier, R-Eunice, both voted against the tax when it was implemented.
Legislators could also look to other sources to make up that difference, including ending a diversion of some funds in the state general fund for transportation projects.
The forecasted budget concerns for higher education go deeper than the halls of the legislature. Across the nation, universities are facing a drop off in college and university enrollment.
Louisiana is no exception. Its population is shrinking while its birthrate is declining. According to Carleton College professor Nathan Grawe, Louisiana is projected to experience a 7.5% to 15% decline in college-going students by 2029, the Public Affairs Research Council detailed in a report on falling enrollment earlier this year.
Myron Lawson, chair of the Southern University Board of Supervisors, said a chancellor could pay for themself, not just in terms of fundraising, but also in recruiting students.
“When you’re getting to recruiting, it’s not an unusual number that a president can deal with when it comes to recruiting that will justify his or her salary,” Lawson said. “As important is retention, and we’re going to be looking very heavily on seeing that person can certainly work on retention aspects.”
“Retention pays for itself,” Lawson added.
The salary for the chancellor’s position has not yet been determined, but Lawson said it will be competitive. Other chancellors in the SU System are paid between $220,000 and $250,000. Shields earns a salary of $410,000, the lowest among Louisiana’s four system presidents.
The chancellor’s position will be advertised in a number of higher education publications. Applications will be taken until the position is filled, although priority will be given to candidates who submit by Dec. 29.
The search committee will meet next on Jan. 12 to select candidates to interview.
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