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2013 October 28 - 12:00 am

Southern U. Retools after Years of Steep Budget Cuts

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The head of the Southern University System said that system-wide changes to cope with years of budget cuts have made operations more efficient and are improving finances.

System President Ronald Mason said Southern’s main campus in Baton Rouge still has challenges to correct, after declaring a financial emergency three years ago. But Mason told the Press Club of Baton Rouge that the system’s consolidation of information technology, human resources and other “back-office” operations has cut costs.

Meanwhile, he said efforts to expand online degree programs and the widened availability of community college course offerings to students have started to stabilize enrollments at the campuses of the nation’s only historically black college system.

“We are moving toward the exact kind of institution of higher learning that not only Louisiana is striving to become, but also the kind of institution of higher learning that the entire system of higher education is trying to figure out how to become,” Mason said.

The Southern System has universities in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, a community college in Shreveport and a law school and agriculture center in Baton Rouge.

The revamp was part of what Southern is calling its “reform and renewal agenda.” It came in response to years of budget slashing across Louisiana’s four public college systems.

Gov. Bobby Jindal and lawmakers have stripped $690 million in state funding from higher education since 2008, a 48 percent reduction, according to data from the Board of Regents. Tuition increases on students have offset only about two-thirds of the losses.

But Mason said after six straight years of cuts, the Jindal administration has suggested stable state funding could be on the horizon for university systems.

“I’ve talked to people in the administration and they’ve told me they thought the pain was going to be over for higher ed. But we won’t know until we get there. Right here, right now, that’s the message we’re getting, and we’ll live with that until we get something else,” he said.

The governor’s office made few promises in response to Mason’s comments. Jindal spokeswoman Shannon Bates issued a statement saying the administration is optimistic about next year’s revenues and will make higher education a priority.

The goal for higher education leaders is to be able to continue to raise tuition under a law that allows for modest hikes on students — without Jindal and lawmakers backing out an equal amount of state financing for campuses.

College officials want the increased tuition money to be new money for their campuses.

“If we can do that, it would be a good day for us,” Mason said.

Southern also is seeking to boost its private donations from alumni.

Mason said he’s been traveling around the country for fundraising efforts. He said about 1.5 percent of alumni made donations to Southern when he started as system president in 2010, and he said that’s grown to about 3 percent.

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