A NEW ORLEANS TRIBUNE EDITORIAL

SUNO is in trouble. 

A one-year SACS probation that will determine its future and a $2 million deficit are top issues facing Southern University at New Orleans—the only public, historically Black institution of higher learning in New Orleans. 

On top of that, reports about SUNO’s incoming interim Chancellor James Ammons have hit local media, with an intense focus on his purportedly straight-forward, no-nonsense approach to transforming and turning around schools, as he prepares to lead the Gentilly-area campus, where roughly 2300 students are enrolled. 

Based on those reports, correcting the challenges SUNO faces and eliminating $2 million from a $23.6 million budget are priorities for Dr. Ammons. And according to those same reports, nothing is off-limits—programs, faculty and staff.

In fact, Ammons has already sent a memo to SUNO students, faculty and staff announcing the suspension of all intercollegiate athletic programs for an indefinite period of time effective at the end of the 2019-2020 year. 

Those were some tough words for us here at The New Orleans Tribune to read. We know and appreciate the overarching value of SUNO, not only to its students but also to the entire city and surrounding areas. SUNO has an economic impact of $105 million on the local and regional economies.

And when its graduates enhance their earnings potential and opportunities through higher education, our entire community is better for it.

SUNO needs more than a plain-speaking pragmatist or someone committed to being a hatchet man—carrying out controversial tasks no one else is willing to do. Oh, those roles have their place; but more than anything, SUNO needs a fighter, a defender, a champion—someone willing to go all 12 rounds, bloodied, bruised, ready to put his skin in the game on behalf of the school, its students and the community. Pragmatism and practicality are important, but we sure hope Dr. Ammons is prepared to display substantial measures of pugilism on behalf of SUNO as well…because that is what SUNO needs—a fighter.

Always at Risk

While it is one of three HBCUs located in the city, we cannot imagine New Orleans without SUNO offering an affordable and accessible path to higher education for all.

Actually, we should say that we don’t want to imagine our city without SUNO. That would be more accurate. Thanks to our state legislature, we have had to consider the possibility more than a few times. We didn’t like imagining it, but we have had to endure such thoughts.

Based on our recollection, the perennial talk of merging historically Black SUNO with the predominately White University of New Orleans resurges in the state legislature every five years or so. The last time we recall such was around 2014-15, which means we expect to see it rear its ugly head in the next legislative session or maybe the one after that. But we expect it soon. 

Hey, if it doesn’t, we will be surprised. But if and when it does, we will fight it—tooth and nail—because we know “merger” is code for closure and would spell the end of SUNO as well as the students it serves—only a fraction of whom would likely be able to continue their studies at UNO with its higher tuition and fees and admissions requirements that have, it would appear, been designed to keep out disenfranchised students. 

Like other HBCUs, SUNO has historically been the gateway to for low-income, first-generation college students, especially those who have not had many privileges and advantages in a society that is, without question, steeped in historical and systemic racial inequities. 

We speculate that the resurgence of “merger” talk has been at the crux of all the recent shake-up at the school—it does set the stage stealthily for putting merger discussions back on the table. 

That is why our concern that those charged with the task of “saving” SUNO don’t get so caught up in the narrative and the notion that SUNO needs to be transformed so much so that they fail to protect and defend it against the wiles and ways of those who want to destroy it. 

SUNO needs a fighter.

You see, “transforming” or “turning around” any institution is one thing. And to be honest, those phrases cause us to pause. We witnessed what happened to New Orleans public schools when the “reformers”, with the aid of too many of our elected and appointed leaders, came in declaring they would transform K-12 public education. And we saw what happened when developers, again, with the cooperation of elected and appointed officials, decided to transform public housing. So forgive us for not getting excited about the idea of anyone “turning around” any institution ever again in this life or the next—especially one that serves Black people. 

FIGHTING for SUNO, its students, employees and this community is something else all together. And that something else is what SUNO needs—a defender—one who will resist attacks from insidious forces bent on erasing the school from our landscape.

SUNO needs a leader that does not see the campus as a troubled school but as a school in trouble. SUNO’s new leader must be the school’s greatest advocate—not a pawn of its adversaries.

SUNO needs a fighter, and we pray that is what it has in Dr. James Ammons.

A Duplicitous Predicament

How ironic is it that our most recent included an editorial about the role of Black voters in Gov. John Bel Edwards’ win, and in that editorial we highlighted higher education in an unapologetically Black agenda that deserves attention.

To quickly remind our readers, we didn’t mince words. The point of that editorial was clear. Were it not for Black voters, John Bel Edwards would not be returning to Baton Rouge. And not just Gov. Edwards, but every elected official—especially Black elected officials at every level that won because of Black voters—needs to be about the business of addressing the issues that impact Black constituents. PERIOD. 

We wrote: “We also want our institutions of higher learning protected. Grambling State University and the Southern University System, including SUNO here in New Orleans, are important parts of our community that helped to educate students when other doors were closed to us. What these institutions of higher learning need are equitable funding and resources—not to be threatened with closure every other legislative session.”

This is important to us because HBCUs are not only a part of our history. They are powerful forces for progress and upward mobility in our community today, right now.

This is important to us because our schools and the students that are served by them need more.

Yes, SUNO is facing a crisis. SACS has placed the school on probation for not having the resources to adequately support its programs. But what a duplicitous predicament that is. Think about it. 

SUNO’s deficiencies—the challenges that have prompted SACS to place the future of the institution in balance—are fundamentally tied to a lack of resources. Like other state-funded schools in Louisiana,

SUNO’s funding from the state has been slashed year after the year. 

Let’s not forget that SUNO and schools like it—the flagship Southern University & A&M College in Baton Rouge, the Southern campus at Shreveport and Grambling State University, a part of the UL system—already receive crumbs, mere morsels in public funding when compared to the predominately White state schools in Louisiana. Make no mistake, these campuses have consistently been resilient, creative and hard-wearing as they have historically had to perform that magic trick that for which far too many Black families, Black businesses and Black institutions in America have become famously known. You know it…it’s the one where we take less, put it in hat, shake it up and somehow still manage to do more with it.

That’s why it just doesn’t seem right for SUNO’s future to be threatened because sometimes the only thing you can actually do with less is…well, less.

Of course the school’s enrollment has fallen in the years post-Katrina. Many of the very students for whom SUNO has historically been a harbor, a haven and a highway to a more prosperous future were among those purposely shut out of the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. They were the children of families, poor and working class New Orleanians for whom returning to the city was made most difficult as a new New Orleans was re-imagined. So when we read about Dr. Ammons’ commitment to reaching out to parents and students that are here and convincing them to see SUNO as a viable option for higher education, we are buoyed. We just hope he remembers to fight for the 2,308 students that already chose SUNO because like the institution, they need a fighter too.

Of course, we recognize that SUNO is not the only state school that has faced dwindling state support or enrollment issues. But if when PWIs like LSU, UNO and UL catch colds, institutions like SUNO that have historically met the needs of marginalized and disenfranchised communities with limited resources and support end up with acute pneumonia. 

And that is why SUNO needs a fighter.

On Dec. 11, SUNO released an official statement, which read:

“Following its annual meeting in Houston, Texas, on yesterday, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges announced that Southern University at New Orleans will continue on probation due to failure to meet core requirement 13.1 (financial resources). Since June, SUNO has been proactively working to address all areas of concern.

Interim Chancellor Dr. James Ammons, who attended the conference, stated, “Since my arrival, we have taken proactive steps to assess and address all areas of concern including making tough budget cuts, developing a comprehensive enrollment plan, implementing aggressive fundraising efforts, and performing in-depth evaluations of all academic degrees and programs to ensure that we are optimizing our resources to strategically place the university and our students in the best position for growth and success. I am confident that we will continue to do whatever is necessary to remedy all concerns and maintain SUNO as a viable choice for postsecondary and continuing education.”

Aggressive fundraising, comprehensive plans, in-depth program evaluations and even tough budget cuts have a place in this battle to save SUNO. To be sure, Dr. Ammons needs to be SUNO’s fiercest fighter.

But he should not have to fight alone. And every official elected by Black voters from the state capital to City Hall need to assume his or her place in SUNO’s corner of the ring—coaching and assisting, providing resources to and promoting the institution.

Instead of gloom and doom, we should be hearing more about what those who have the ability to make a difference are willing to do to help SUNO.

Every Fighter Needs Good Cornermen 

We were struck this past summer by a July media report that detailed how some leaders at Louisiana State University were approaching an impending $10 million to $14 million shortfall—roughly somewhere between 1.7 percent and 2.5 percent of the school’s $562 million budget. Instead of offering options and solutions in the July 2019 article published in The Advocate, a member of LSU’s Board of Supervisors Jay Blossman, a Mandeville attorney, former member of the Louisiana Public Service Commission, actually offered a list of all the ways LSU would NOT make up for the budget deficit. Off the table were raising fees and tuition, cutting student activities and programs and faculty/staff layoffs, according to Blossman. LSU would have to figure out some other way to fill the $10 million to $14 million hole. We’re not sure if it did or will or how it was done or will be done. In fact, other than that one article about all the things LSU wasn’t going to do to make up the shortfall, we can’t find another report about the 2019 deficit or how the school is in trouble and needs to immediately cut spending. There could be one out there, but we sure can’t find it.

Meanwhile, the absolute and unconditional need to cut $2 million (a little less than a whopping 10 percent of SUNO’s already slim budget) and news reports that characterize the incoming chancellor as firmly committed to do just that, no matter the cost or the loss, has been fodder recently in the local mainstream daily not once but twice in one week. And Ammons has already taken the first step by suspending athletics at the end of the current school year. That means scholarships for student athletes will be gone. That means jobs of coaches and trainers will be gone.

We won’t lie. That shook us. It shook us because we know SUNO needs a fighter, and that just doesn’t sound like much of a fight as much as it sounds offering SUNO up as a sacrificial lamb. 

Don’t misunderstand our position here. No shade toward Dr. Ammons is intended. After all, he was named interim chancellor at SUNO because the school is in trouble. He has been given the important duty of getting its finances on the right track, increasing enrollment, and ensuring that the schools programs and activities are preparing its students for their future endeavors. And we know difficult decisions will have to be made. We just want to make sure that he knows that we—this entire community—expect him to do more than make “tough” decisions that no one else will do. We expect him to actually fight for SUNO.

And any good boxer needs a good cornerman. If you know even a little bit about boxing, you know a cornerman is the trainer or coach that is allowed to instruct and assist the prizefighter from just outside the ring during a bout. He is in the boxer’s corner.

As much as we need Dr. Ammons to get in the ring and fight for SUNO, he is going to need some cornermen.

He will need cornermen throughout this community—alumni, community and business leaders to come together in the fight for SUNO.

He will need current and prospective students to be in SUNO’s corner—committed to continuing or beginning their higher education journeys at the campus.

But the most important cornermen that SUNO needs right now are every one of our elected officials. We need our state legislators and the governor that we elected to get in Dr. Ammons’ corner. No, actually, we need them to do more than that. We need them to get in SUNO’s corner, roll up their sleeves and join the battle for the very future of SUNO now, RIGHT NOW.

Here’s what that looks like:

There shouldn’t be any talk of “merging” SUNO not in the upcoming legislative session, not now, not ever again. 

It also looks like giving SUNO and every other public institution of higher learning, but especially SUNO and schools like it, what they need to serve their missions.

African-American voters were the absolute key to Gov. John Bel Edward’s victory in early November, pulling in 98 percent of the Black vote. 

Here at The Tribune, we love giving credit where credit is due. Thanks to the hard work of Gov. Edwards and the state legislature over the last several years, Louisiana is enjoying a budget surplus of over $500 million. Using some of that surplus money to shore up and invest in higher education in this state makes sense. 

To be honest, we find it troubling that $2 million—a meager sum as large, institutional budgets go—is being held up as if it alone could make or break SUNO. The idea actually makes us wish SUNO had its very own Jay Blossman—someone at least willing to say, for the record, that while the $2 million crunch is real, this is what we’re not going to do to further jeopardize the role and mission of this school.

Perhaps our take on things are simple, but considering that the governor ran on the $500 million surplus and then got 98 percent of the Black vote, earmarking less than half of one percent of the surplus amount to help SUNO out of financial straits doesn’t sound too far-fetched to us—just saying.

Meanwhile, the state’s newly proposed plan for higher education is designed to prioritize lower income, minority students. It’s called Louisiana Prospers and purportedly it will change the way money is distributed to Louisiana’s colleges and universities in ways that put more emphasis on the development of lower income, minority and adult students and less priority on research.

The Fight

And boy, that sounds great. But how does it actually look. Fighting for SUNO means we need less talk and more plans put into action. We want to see real results and follow-through to this commitment that involves infusing the resources into SUNO and other campuses that serve those who need the biggest hand up.

Fighting for SUNO means that at a school where only 2,308 students are enrolled, no one who relies on financial aid should be met with a sign on the door of the financial aid office that reads that the Go Grant program has run out of funding. But that’s what happened at SUNO in the Fall 2019 semester.

The Go Grant is a state, need-based financial aid program designed to provide resources to the very students that SUNO serves— nontraditional and low to moderate-income students who need additional aid to afford the cost of attending college.

We’ll be honest; we don’t know every thing about how GO Grant allocations are determined for schools. By the looks of the numbers, we can only surmise that it is some secret formula skewed against public HBCUs. But we submit that there isn’t a student body across the state for whom need-based financial assistance is more essential than SUNO students. Yet, when we look at the Louisiana Office of Financial Student Aid’s GO Grant allotments for 2019-2020, we are unnerved. 

For example, Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond has a Fall 2019 enrollment of 14,260, a roughly 6 to 1 enrollment rate compared to SUNO. In other words, for every six students enrolled at the Hammond school, there is one enrolled at SUNO. So we will concede that Southeastern should be getting a larger GO Grant allotment than SUNO based on enrollment numbers.

But if everything else were equal or at least comparable, such as the cost of attendance and the economic status/financial need of the students and their families, Southeastern, in our estimation, should only be getting roughly $6 in GO Grant funding to every $1 allotted to SUNO. That’s not what is happening. 

Instead, Southeastern’s 2019-2020 Go Grant allocation was about $3.08 million compared to SUNO’s roughly $290,000—a 10 to 1 ratio. And we don’t understand why.

The two schools actually have comparable costs of attendance or COAs, with SUNO’s at about $22,700 and Southeastern’s at roughly $23,700. And that COA is the financial cost of attendance used for every undergraduate that enrolls in a school. It includes tuition, fees, books, along with the cost of transportation and room and board. And that is whether the student chooses on or off-campus housing, they still have to eat and have a roof over their heads.  

So for arguments’ sake, let’s just say that the economic demographics of the student bodies at the two campuses are similar. It’s a prospect we will consider, but actually doubt as the student body is almost 65 percent White and the average ACT composite of admitted students is 22.8 at Southeastern. And once again, while we don’t claim to know everything about the GO Grant funding formula, we know enough about race and wealth and earning gaps in Louisiana along with correlations between students’ standardized test scores and their parents socio-economic status (students whose parents earn more typically perform better) to extrapolate with some degree of confidence that the average Southeastern student/family is generally faring better economically than the average SUNO student/family. But again, for the sake of this argument let’s just say everything is equal, and Southeastern students need as much financial assistance as SUNO students. 

With that concession, why isn’t SUNO’s allotment a lot closer to $513,333—or roughly $1 for every $6 being doled out in GO Grants to Southeastern? Either that, or Southeastern should only be pulling in about $1.74 million if SUNO only qualifies for a $290,000 allotment. And the GO Grant allotments for every institution across the state need to be revisited as well.

Additionally, SUNO and every other institution in this state that has made it its mission to serve minority and disadvantaged students needs the Governor and the state legislature to revisit the TOPS program, which has become a cash cow for students from middle-class White families while far too many Black students, who are stuck in poor-performing schools, are failing to meet the standards it now takes to qualify for a four-year TOPS scholarship. We have said it too many times before to count, but we will say it again. TOPS needs to be revamped to better serve its original intent. Doing that would definitely be a round-one win for SUNO.

We need the Governor and state legislature to start putting OUR money where their mouths are. They say they want to make higher education a priority. They say they want to focus on the programs and the places that help those who need the most help to succeed because even they understand that our state is only as strong as the weakest among us. Well that is exactly what SUNO does. So give SUNO and schools like it what they NEED to fulfill their missions.

SUNO is not a troubled school. But it is a school in trouble. It is a school that has consistently had to fight ominous outside forces to prove its worth. We fear this is one of those times and the stage is being set for its demise.  

So yes, SUNO needs realistic, rational and reasonable leader—one who understands the real task before him and is ready to take it on. 

But more than that, it needs a fighter. 

And if $2 million will help SUNO’s new interim chancellor wage a better battle on its behalf, if it will help stabilize the school while Dr. Ammons fights in tandem with other leaders and administrators to get it back in line with its accreditation requirements, work to grow and improve programs and activities for current students and increase enrollment as they transform SUNO into a even better version of the treasured and indispensable institution that it has been, is and will always be, then we say it’s a check the men and women we elected to serve us should be willing to write. 

That’s what good cornermen in this battle would do. Really, what good is a $500 million surplus if some of it can’t be used to strengthen higher education, in general, and to help fight for SUNO, specifically? We say that if Gov. Edwards can’t commit to fighting for SUNO, then we might as well have voted for Eddie Rispone. But we didn’t. And he and other elected leaders should be mindful of that fact because SUNO needs fighters. 

SUNO deserves that. 

The Black community deserves that. 

Share Button