Zurik: Past chancellors remain on SUNO payroll as college makes cuts amidst financial crisis

Zurik: Past chancellors remain on SUNO payroll as college makes cuts amidst financial crisis

NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - A New Orleans university continues to be plagued by a financial crisis they say is due to declining enrollment and cuts from state funding. But FOX 8 News found past chancellors are able to stay on the payroll at the institution and collect paychecks higher than what is stated in their contracts.

Southern University at New Orleans has been dealing with financial issues for years which have resulted in it being placed on probation by an accrediting agency, the elimination of the school’s entire athletic program and some cuts to faculty and staff. The university says they are in need of nearly $12 Million in repairs -- but the state marks them as deferred, with no funds to pay for it.

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Another problem recently on the campus has been mold in a building just a few years old. The reason -- poor maintenance. The school had to call in outside firms to investigate a mold issue in the school’s new sciences building. Photos from the firms hired show visible mold spores in science labs. The cause -- a temperature and humidity difference between the classrooms and hallways.

But despite the one position on campus offers a job after the person decides to step down. That position is the university’s chancellor.

“It’s really depressing they are so cavalier,” Tulane Law Professor Joel Friedman said.

When Southern University at New Orleans Lisa Mims-Devezin let her contract expire at the end of last year, she requested a tenured faculty position at the university, with a $110,000 per year salary.

The president approved her requests -- costing SUNO extra money. In Mims-Devezin’s contract, it states she would be “compensated at the average of the three highest-paid faculty in the department she is tenured.” According to our calculations, that would equate to around $55,000 a year.

“The university was obliged to take her back at $55,000, but they chose to take her back at $110,000,” Friedman said. “It was a purely discretionary decision on their part.”

Dr. Lisa Mims-Devezin announced her resignation as chancellor of Southern University at New Orleans in December 2019. After a six month sabbatical, she'll return as a tenured professor.
Dr. Lisa Mims-Devezin announced her resignation as chancellor of Southern University at New Orleans in December 2019. After a six month sabbatical, she'll return as a tenured professor. (Source:)

Under the leadership of Mims-Devezin, in August 2019, the agency responsible for SUNO’s accreditation placed them on probation due to financial problems. In December 2019, the school announced that financial issues were forcing them to eliminate all SUNO athletic programs. And in January The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate reported the school laid off one faculty and five staff members.

“The last thing they should be doing is paying someone more than they’re obligated to pay,” Friedman said.

We asked SUNO for the names of the professor and staff members laid off because of financial constraints. They have yet to respond with the information.

The reason why we wanted to see the names -- to see their annual salary. Ninety-five percent of SUNO’s employees make under $55,000 a year. When Mims-Devezin becomes a tenured professor, she will make twice that amount.

“Certainly at least one if not two of those staff individuals who were let go could have kept their jobs,” Friedman said. "Of course [these are real people]., but they have no voice, they have no constituency in the administration, she does.

“How would you like to be the children or the family of the staff person or the faculty member who was let go because the university didn’t have the $30,000 or $40,000 or $50,000 to pay that person and instead they’re giving it to the former chancellor,” Joel Friedman said.

Victor Ukpolo, former chancellor of Southern University at New Orleans.
Victor Ukpolo, former chancellor of Southern University at New Orleans. (Source: Southern University at New Orleans)

Mims-Devezin will be one of two professors making a six-figure salary. The other, Victor Ukpolo, the chancellor who preceded Mims-Devezin.

Last year, Ukpolo earned $100,207 in a teaching role.

Mims-Devezin is being paid her new salary but is not teaching yet. Instead, she requested a six-month sabbatical to prepare for her teaching assignment. She is set to return to SUNO July 1.

Students we spoke with on the SUNO campus were surprised at the agreement for the former chancellors.

“Not at all,” Jayson Charles said when asked if this is spending wisely. “Good for her.”

“If you’re going to give somebody a raise, give it to somebody who deserves it, not somebody that puts the school in debt and puts the school in a position we [are] in now," Jayson Charles said.

Some other students we spoke to were supportive of the university and one person had a positive review of Mims-Devezin’s time as chancellor.

“She was a nice lady, Dr. Mims was very nice, she was pleasant,” one student said.

The Southern University System President has refused to respond to our request for comment.

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