The shocking physical decline of Southern University

By Robert Mann

Southern University occupies one of Baton Rouge’s most inspiring venues. It rests on a bluff north of downtown and offers an expansive view of a broad bend in Mississippi River. It’s a lovely location.

That is until one turns around and notices the disgrace that is the Southern campus.

Dotted with dilapidated buildings and crumbling streets, the campus is a decrepit place. Of its 140 buildings, 19 have been abandoned. Another three are partly vacant.

No school’s campus better represents the neglect of Louisiana higher education than Southern, the state’s most prominent historically black university. Over the years, state leaders slashed its funding — so much that the school declared financial exigency in 2011 and temporarily cut faculty salaries by 10 percent. The following year, Southern summarily laid off dozens of faculty and staff, a stain on the school’s reputation.

As for students, they’ve not only endured the disappearance of degree programs and faculty members; they are also burdened with higher tuition and fees for the privilege of attending a school that is steadily falling apart.

Water leaks from the ceiling into a waste bucket in a classroom in W.W. Stewart Hall on the Southern University campus.

I spent most of an afternoon recently roaming the campus with two employees of the university’s Maintenance Department and got a close inspection of several buildings. My reaction after several hours at Southern: anger and embarrassment.

The school’s appalling physical decline should forever shame former Gov. Bobby Jindal and the legislators who enabled his cruel, systematic starvation of higher education. Jindal, however, wouldn’t know anything about Southern’s condition. A university official told me that the only time Jindal ever visited the campus as governor was in May 2008, during the first months of his eight years in office.

B.A. Little Road on the Southern University campus is about to collapse into a nearby canal.

That Southern’s infrastructure has apparently suffered more than other Louisiana universities – LSU’s threadbare campus appears sparkling by comparison – causes one to wonder how different the school’s condition might be if the majority of its students and faculty were not African-American.

The Southern campus is not just a disgrace. Its deterioration poses a danger to students, faculty and staff.

A report released in February by the Legislative Auditor noted that 21 buildings “had life safety code deficiencies cited by the Office of the State Fire Marshal.” Nineteen have been cited by the fire marshal 73 times. At the school’s John B. Cade Library, the fire marshal has cited the building’s inoperable fire alarm system 20 times since December 2007. At A.O. Williams Hall, the fire alarm and sprinkler system do not work. Both buildings are on constant “fire watch,” meaning employees are assigned to make hourly inspections of each building.

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2 thoughts on “The shocking physical decline of Southern University

  1. The need and value of HBCUs were unquestionable 135 years ago when Southern accepted its first students. Beginning some 83 years ago, with passage of the most sweeping of the federal civil rights acts, our country has changed. Racism has not changed as rapidly as any of us would have hoped, but it has changed nonetheless. In recent decades Louisiana finally joined the rest of the nation in recognizing the value of community colleges and we now have such a system. It has proven its worth in providing educational opportunities when they might otherwise not exist..

    All our colleges and universities are going to rack and ruin thanks to fiscal and social policies that ignore the need to invest now for future savings. As evidenced here, Southern seems to be suffering disproportionately. We are again seriously considering consolidating and closing some of our 4 year universities, Now is time to consider eliminating the separate, but unequal, Southern University system.

    Wasn’t it the goal civil rights legislation and the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King to eliminate the barriers that separate us? At this point, separation would seem to be the main effect of HBCUs.

    None of us likes to give up on treasured traditions. The invaluable contribution of Southern University to higher education cannot be overstated and should never be forgotten – it should be venerated – but, if we are going to now allow it to languish and fall apart gradually, maybe it is time to simply let it go as a HBCU. We might all be better off as a result.


  2. Sorry for the typo. I, of course meant 52 years ago and 83 years after Southern opened.


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