A sex tape, an accreditation downgrade and allegations from a recently fired registrar of attempted grade changing scandal. All in the last seven days.
This is Southern University, the world’s only historically black system of American higher education. Its public struggles to maintain solvency in the face of political intrigue and internal nepotism are the biggest, and perhaps worst kept secret in Louisiana and certainly in the national HBCU community.
But it seems that this strife is sadly coming to a head for the system.
The whispers among alumni, students, and observers of Southern say that its greatest potential is the source of its greatest setbacks; an insular culture bred to preserve the system against closure or merger from legislative opponents, but also steeped in Louisiana’s infamous brands of social politics and good ol’ boy networking.
You don’t have to look far to reveal how this bad romance of survival instinct and nepotism has yielded examples of executive mismanagement, corruption, and lost opportunities, most of which trend historic in the scope of their damage to public trust in the university’s brand.
Last year the school received a ‘lack of institutional control’ citation from the NCAA for improperly certifying hundreds of student-athletes dating back more than six years. Their attempt at a remedy was to place the blame on a former athletic director, only for the NCAA Infractions Committee to outline that nearly all the infractions which caused the massive penalty, were committed prior to his hiring.
In 2015, Southern System Supervisors were criticized by state auditors for improper awarding and record keeping of scholarships, which frequently exceeded allotted budgets and even more often provided inaccurate information on recipients.
In 2014, three years after the unprecedented step of declaring financial exigency, members of Southern’s faculty senate pressed for the ouster of then president Ronald Mason, which divided the campus on ideas of growth and leadership sustainability.
Ten years earlier, Southern made international headlines for a grade-changing scandal that resulted in hundreds of falsified academic transcripts and wrongly awarded degrees.
Southern has been placed on accreditation warning or probation twice in the last five years. Enrollment is down, deferred maintenance projections are high. And while the university’s academic profile remains as one of the best at any HBCU in the country, it too often is overshadowed by recurring scandals and controversies.
The Board of Supervisors is a frequent target for alumni who believe them to be the culprits behind a culture of politically driven assessment and personnel decisions. Former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is another usual suspect for Southern’s woes, and deservedly so; given the collapse of higher ed in the state under his leadership.
But seemingly, the most honest assessment of Southern’s bad health is found among all the families and friends who make up its culture. The same coalition of advocates who fought back the SUNO merger issue six years ago is the same network of people with members fight for relatives to be hired in jobs for which they aren’t qualified, and who reject ideas of fiscal accountability and proper metrics of success.
And no one – not even Southern’s most ardent political adversaries, believes that the university with one of the nation’s largest HBCU alumni bases and an inextricable presence in Louisiana’s cultural DNA can fall. Lawmakers can’t touch the school, fearing charges of racist motives. Supporters can’t seek improvements, because doing so privately yields no response, and doing so publicly leads to other Jaguars accusing them of harming the school and its legacy.
As bad as Southern’s recent history may be, the other side of that story has been its resilience in the face of self-sabotage. But Southern is running out of chances, resources, and affinity from its own stakeholder groups. And with uncertain climate in economics and politics, it is entirely possible that the undoing of one of our greatest universities has happened before our eyes, while we’ve only viewed it as a strong of unfortunate events committed by unbelievably fortunate executives, managers and agents.
Southern is not headed for or in trouble; it is past the point of no return. And if we can’t figure out a way to build capacity, accountability or faith in the institution, then our focus must be on the dignified way to bury it.