Southern University will welcome an 11-year-old academic prodigy among its student ranks this fall as Elijah Preccieley, a scholastic standout from Baton Rouge, will become a third-generation Jaguar.
His talent and prospects of it being refined at Louisiana’s flagship HBCU are not strange bedfellows. Preccieley isn’t the first genius to bleed blue and gold, and the Baton Rouge flagship campus is singularly responsible for much of the region’s black talent in education, criminal justice and scientific research.
But Preccieley’s commitment almost seems countercultural to the Southern University we’ve come to know over the last two years, a campus which has become embroiled in scandals of sexual misconduct, executive turnover, and crumbling infrastructure.
And these headlines are the backdrop for other headlines about the Southern University System’s plans to grow enrollment to 20,000 students and to lead economic development in Baton Rouge over the next decade – despite every economic, population and political indicator suggesting that such a plan is virtually impossible?
All large organizations of all kinds deal with a ‘Jekyl and Hyde’ existence, particularly those created by and for black folks which receive zero coverage for the good that they do, and overwhelmingly unbalanced coverage for the bad things they do. Black fraternities and sororities pour millions of service hours and dollars into causes benefiting black people around the world, but are most recognized for issues of hazing.
Black churches power black economic and social engineering, but are most easily distinguished by their scandals and perceptions of ‘not doing enough.’
But unlike these private organizations, Southern University and all public HBCUs are held to standards of public disclosure, and by political gamesmanship and economic tides that roll in and out based on the will of voters and the fortunes of industry. Their leadership and financial stability ebb and flow with the will of its members, and even in the midst of scandal, those members still have been conditioned in some respect to believe in the organizational mission instead of the shortcomings of those charged with its advancement.
It’s hard to believe in Southern when we know that lawmakers appoint board members, appropriate funds and create policy with the guiding principle of harming the campus, and that actors on campus who are just outside of the politics to kill Southern, are driven by self-interest and the Louisiana culture of “get yours and get out,” moreso than the importance of Southern to regional economy and Black America’s educational well-being.
We want to cheer for Preccieley, the family who groomed him to choose Southern almost from birth, the SU faculty who have worked underpaid and unheralded for years in training up other prodigies whose names we’ll never know, the alumni who continue to give millions to the idea of Southern, and the advocates who will stand ready to burn Southern to the ground in the event that the state ever considers shutting it down or scaling it back to an unrecognizable version of its former self.
But we really don’t know how to view Southern successes, not because they are rare or undeserving of attention, but because we don’t know if this is a blip resulting from Southern’s life support treatment, or a sign that the school is trying to awaken out of its coma of corruption and negligence from all corners of the campus and statehouse?
Which Southern University should we recognize as the real HBCU system flagship? What should make us believe enough to send students and gifts, and to defend her with our names and individual brands? How do we know if this story or any other positive happening out of Baton Rouge is a sign of resurrection or temporary exhumation?