Southern Univ. president aims to set higher standards

Southern University will probably never be on the same level as Harvard and the nation’s other elite schools, but one day, the 134-year-old historically black university could become much more selective than it currently is.

But in order to become a highly selective institution, Southern President Ronald Mason will likely have to change the minds of some in the Southern community who predict that trying to move into more rarefied territory could be the death of an institution that traditionally has been all-embracing.

“I’m not saying we’re going to become Yale or Harvard, and there’s no plan in place yet, it’s just a vision,” Mason said.

His vision is based on two facts: The state has been raising standards for college admission, and schools have been getting fewer public dollars, forcing them to rely more heavily on tuition to survive.

This means that state policy is causing a shift in Southern’s traditional model — serving students who don’t have a lot of college options.

“Because we are more tuition dependent, we need to focus on students who are better prepared out of high school,” Mason said. “The state is going to higher standards, which means we have to get more rigorous over time.”

With higher standards, Mason anticipates moving to a future model where Southern will have fewer students but charge higher tuition.

“Preparation level is tied to income. That’s a fact,” he said. “Southern has to keep up. We may have to become more rigorous if we want to compete at the highest levels.”

Southern currently requires a 2.0 high school grade-point-average and a 20 out of a possible 36 on the ACT standardized test. This puts it on par with several other universities around the state including Southeastern University, in Hammond, Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, and McNeese State University in Lake Charles.

Mason said he could see Southern’s Baton Rouge campus slowly raising its standards over time to match the admissions standards Southern’s Honors college requires — a 3.3 gpa and a 23 on the ACT.

Alexander Wiggins, a senior music major at Southern, said he thinks Mason’s vision is a good one.

“I want prosperity for the university. If that’s what it takes for a better future, then by all means,” Wiggins said.

But Wiggins added that he worries what Mason’s plan would mean for a university struggling to turn around several years of declining enrollment. Those enrollment declines, coupled with six straight years of state budget cuts, have led to shaky finances, program closings and staff layoffs.

Throughout the country, historically black colleges and universities, commonly called HBCUs, are facing the same dire situation. Enrollment is drying up, and many of them lack the deep reservoir of alumni giving that the country’s major institutions have built over the years.

Established during the decades following the Civil War, HBCUs were created exclusively to educate black people when other schools wouldn’t. They held a strong position in the black community through the 1960s, after predominantly white institutions started accepting black students.

It was around that point when the role of HBCUs began to shift. While black colleges once served the entire college-going black middle class, a larger share of those students began opting to go to wealthier universities with more attractive facilities.

A 2013 University of Pennsylvania study shows that the country’s 105 HBCUs enroll just 11 percent of today’s black students.

Often smaller than more well-known universities, many HBCUs now sell themselves as institutions that offer a more nurturing, family-like environment for students, many of whom are the first in their family to attend college.

Mason added that HBCUs rely heavily on students from low-income backgrounds who often enter college less prepared than their wealthier peers.

Mason said he envisions Southern’s flagship campus in Baton Rouge slowly expanding out of that role.

“Every system of higher learning should be able to attract and accommodate highly prepared students,” Mason said, adding that Southern also should focus on improving its diversity from the current 5 percent of nonblack students to about 20 percent.

Southern could do all of that while still serving its traditional students through a program called SUSLA Connect, Mason said.

The Southern System has a community college in Shreveport, known as SUSLA. It operates satellite locations on Southern’s Baton Rouge and New Orleans’ campuses.

As admission standards go up on Southern’s Baton Rouge campus, students who don’t meet the requirements will be routed into the SUSLA connect program. It allows the students to live physically on the Baton Rouge campus, while taking community college classes. The partnership allows students who raise their academic performance through their first 18 credits, a seamless transfer into university-level courses.

“As a system, Southern will always have a mission to serve the underserved,” Mason said, meaning that Southern’s law school, Agricultural Center and Shreveport and New Orleans campuses will largely stay the same, while Baton Rouge would shift toward higher selectivity.

Louisiana’s top higher education policy adviser, Tom Layzell, said Mason’s plan makes sense. “The notion of trying to pull the system together and to sharpen up the distinct roles of each campus, makes sense,” he said.

Southern board member Tony Clayton is at least partially on board with Mason’s plan. Instead of offering the same programs as nearby universities, including LSU or the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Southern needs to become “a niche university” and focus on its strongest programs, including nursing and engineering, he said.

Clayton said Southern might have to take the extraordinary step of declaring a financial emergency for a second time since 2011. Such a move gives schools more leeway to restructure programs and lay off tenured faculty.

Clayton said he hopes the public will understand taking such a drastic step if it means Southern can streamline itself and cut out some of the costly and unpopulated programs that are currently offered.

“We can’t be everything to everybody. We need to get rid of the duplication, and we need to get rid of programs like foreign language,” Clayton said. “I’m sorry, but there’s not a lot of demand for French-speaking brothers.”

Board member Myron Lawson, however, isn’t so sure of Mason’s plan.

“If you are trying to kill Southern University, this is the first step you take,” he said. “We would be defying our mission of our founders. We are an institution that welcomes students who have lived through struggles.”

Southern board member and former system President Leon Tarver said there is likely room to expand while staying true to Southern’s core mission.

“Southern’s role has always been an evolving one. From our earliest days, we were always serving various populations,” he said. “We have always had to adapt our programs to meet the needs of the market and to meet the demands of our students.”