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 Ammon 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. Ammon. And according to those same reports, nothing is off-limits—programs, faculty and staff.

In fact, Ammon 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 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. Ammon 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 racially 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 every 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 Ammon.

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