Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Mason Ends Tenure at Jackson State University to Take Helm of SU System: Southern University System Expects Ronald Mason to Raise External Funds and Improve Student Outcomes

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Mason Ends Tenure at Jackson State University to Take Helm of SU System: Southern University System Expects Ronald Mason to Raise External Funds and Improve Student Outcomes

Article excerpt

A stream of criticism has followed Jackson State University President Ronald Mason since his controversial "unification" proposal for merging three of Mississippi's HBCUs was leaked to the media last winter. And now Mason is on his way to Louisiana.

To many observers in Mississippi, the timing of Mason's hiring as president of the five-campus Southern University System seems impeccable.

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Critics hammered Mason because of his proposal--which called for Alcorn State, Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State universities to merge--and because he was privately circulating his idea while publicly condemning Gov. Haley Barbour's similar, budget-cutting plan to merge those schools. Neither idea went beyond the stage of stirring protest, but Mason left alumni, students, faculty and Black state legislators seething over what appeared to be a stealth move.

"I don't think it was time to leave but I had some concern that the focus became on me than on the future of the HBCUs," Mason says. "I think a conversation has started that may change the consciousness and concern for Mississippi HBCUs."

But Mason admits the SU job came at an ideal time for him and his family. "There was no relation between the two," the New Orleans native says. "Only, perhaps that the noise reminded me that 10 years is a long time to be a president in this day and age. I like the idea of a new challenge, going home and working with a system."

Before becoming president of JSU, Mason held administrative positions at Tulane University, including senior vice president and general counsel and vice president for finance and operations.

Mason's campus unification ideas appealed to Southern University at Baton Rouge Chancellor Kofi Lomotey, who says he is "pleased and excited" that Mason was selected as the new president. "His ideas are not dissimilar from what we have here in Louisiana with the five campuses. It is my understanding that he was trying to save the institutions (in Mississippi)."

But Dr. Lomotey says he supported Mason for other reasons. Lomotey says finding alternative funding sources, especially federal research grants, is one of the top challenges facing the SU System. He believes Mason's success in obtaining federal funding at JSU will be an asset to the SU System.

Mason's recent appointment to President Barack Obama's Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities "certainly doesn't hurt," Lomotey says.

Mason was reluctant to name specific problems he will tackle at SU. However, he says, "it seems vulnerable on several fronts. I think the ultimate question will be how serious Southern is about re-creating itself as a model for the next generation of HBCUs."

In Lomotey's view, low student retention and graduation rates, aging faculty and lackluster marketing, "all of which point directly or indirectly to funding," are SU's top challenges.

In general, Mason says HBCUs face daunting and, in some cases, insurmountable difficulties. "The challenges are real and the lack of access to private wealth makes life difficult," Mason says. He is blunt about prospects for some institutions that fail to be proactive about facing fiscal realities.

"Some will remain in name but cease to be educational and economic bases for Black people," he says.

Before he arrived at JSU, Mason was known for his efforts in New Orleans to link college campuses to urban development. …

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