Southern University System President Ronald Mason Jr. has a problem. In front of him, the visual on encroaching danger for the SUS flagship institution is becoming clearer by the day. Legislative action to remove Southern University of New Orleans from the world’s only HBCU system has many observers counting down the months until a similar assault is made on the body’s largest institution and the system itself.
At his right hand, SUBR finances are in shambles, alumni are discouraged and divided, and community stakeholders have no clear direction on how to influence an organization with a deeply-rooted inability to share its story and value to the entirety of HBCU culture.
His left hand hovers above the snake pit of the Southern board, stocked with a wicked mix of caring alumni and community leaders and opportunistic businessmen, seeking only their next personal or political gains from the Bayou Classic and Southern’s brand influence in Baton Rouge.
And behind him, a slate of chancellor candidates that both encourages and dismays in its diversity. Among the recycled leaders, with their years of fundraising acumen, academic invigoration and institutional advancement, there is a sense of safety and complacency. A sense that, if one from among the 50-and-over crowd is hired, Southern may benefit from the wisdom of his years and the stillness of his personality against a watchful faculty senate and leering Louisiana legislation.
But also among this mix is Paul Quinn College President Michael Sorrell, one of the “two of the bright stars in the HBCU community” Mason recently lauded, along with Philander Smith College President Dr. Walter Kimbrough. The differences between Kimbrough and Sorrell are far outpaced by their similarities; both emerging voices in higher education reform for HBCU culture, both adept at political and cultural analysis and nationally recognized for their acumen, and most of all, both proud leaders of the New School on student engagement, development and retention strategies.
Division among the board already cost Mason and Southern a shot at Kimbrough, the candidate most widely believed to be Mason’s personal choice. The “Hip-Hop President” withdrew his name from candidacy, and cited in interviews and personal tweets that the board sought a candidate with “different skills” from what he was prepared to bring to Baton Rouge.
Now Mason is left with Sorrell, his last, and perhaps best opportunity for rehabilitating a wounded Southern. Sorrell, who has made a burgeoning national name for Paul Quinn College through headline-magnet student social initiatives and academic improvement strategies, is the perfect fit for Southern. All that Jaguar Nation wants for, Sorrell is prepared to deliver and brings a track record of success.
Sorrell, an attorney with experience in sports consulting and management experience in collegiate and professional athletics, could bring the marketing, attention and care long needed in Southern’s revenue-bearing sports and its most prized commodity, the Human Jukebox. As a public policy key influencer, Sorrell has worked closely with national campaigns and administrations under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
Seemingly, Louisiana’s political heat would be akin to a summer’s walk through Grant Park for the Chicago native.
At Paul Quinn, Sorrell recruited and retained an administrative team that has helped raise more than $6 million in his four-year tenure, increased applications to the college by more than 300 percent, raised enrollment and boosted the institution’s internal and external profile.
And all of this was done while overseeing litigation to maintain the school’s accreditation while earning federal accreditation with another body.
Sorrell would be the chancellor for the Baton Rouge campus, but would be an asset to the entirety of the system. For the Law Center, an additional vision for development and focus. For the Agricultural Center, a leading perspective on urban sustainability and entrepreneurial development. For SUNO, another legal hand on deck to push back upon the state’s effort to merge the campus into the University of New Orleans.
There are significant problems at Southern, but they are not above resolution for the proper leader with the proper autonomy to make changes. Students are looking for the campus to move beyond the common HBCU practice of recycled leadership and direction. They seek for the Southern brand to match their expectations and to find a place in the national discussion as one of the nation’s greatest institutions, and to serve the nation as its only historically black system.
Trouble surrounds Mason on this decision, and there is no way to select Sorrell without a measure of controversial resistance from parties far too comfortable with SU’s status quo. But there is no question that Sorrell is the only choice for this post, and would man it with the same energy and vision that, if lost, Paul Quinn will heartily and rightly mourn should he decide to accept an offer.
But no one – not Mason, not the Southern System, not HBCU culture in total – will be able to bear the trouble that lies beneath in Baton Rouge should he make the wrong choice.