Stephanie Grace: Former U.S. Rep. Bill Jefferson's grip on Southern University of New Orleans isn't what it once was
Posted by Stephanie Grace, Columnist, The Times-Picayune
June 01, 2009 5:56PM
These can't be comfortable times over at Southern University of New Orleans' campus.
In the near term, SUNO, like other state-run colleges and universities across Louisiana, is facing potentially severe budget cuts. The current incarnation of the state spending plan has the school taking about a $3 million hit, a possibility that has already prompted layoffs. The Southern system as a whole could lose about $17 million.
And that's not the end of the threat.
The state's dire longterm financial outlook, combined with constitutional provisions that force higher education and health care to absorb major cuts during hard times, have helped build momentum for a systematic streamlining of Louisiana's various college and university systems.
There's even some fear that the historically black SUNO could find itself merged with the nearby University of New Orleans, part of the Louisiana State University system.
If ever there was a time for SUNO to put its best foot forward and make the case that it deserves ongoing state support, it's now.
All of which leads us to Renee Gill Pratt.
Even as higher education advocates were trying to fight off Jindals's proposed cuts last week, Gill Pratt, SUNO's director of admissions, recruitment and retention, was named to the school's executive cabinet, a group that acts as Chancellor Victor Ukpolo's inner circle of advisers. This despite the fact that she had been named in a federal racketeering indictment just days earlier.
The new gig didn't come with extra pay. But it did send a message that SUNO didn't care that having an alleged criminal in its brain trust might, oh, send the wrong message.
And not just any alleged criminal. The charges aginst Gill Pratt boil down to a theory that, as a state representative and City Council member, she was a truly terrible steward of the public purse.
According to the indictment, Gill Pratt systematically steered government money into non-profits run by members of the Jefferson political dynasty. Rather than use the money for educating pregnant teens, training young black men to enter the work force or cleaning up blight, they pocketed much of it themselves.
The indictment suggests that Gill Pratt may not have benefited as much as her alleged co-conspirators (although, given that one of them was her companion Mose Jefferson, it's hard to say for sure). But if she didn't know where the money was going -- the best possible explanation -- then she sure didn't try too hard to find out.
This is not somebody who should be sitting at the right hand of any public university leader, let alone one who is fighting for his school's future.
And indeed, a flurry of publicity after the cabinet appointment guaranteed that she no longer is. Last week, Gill Pratt took an unpaid leave of absence from the school, due to what Ukpolo called "personal matters." The move was applauded by the chairman of Southern's board of supervisors, Tony Clayton, who said he's glad Gill Pratt "did the right thing for SUNO."
Gill Pratt's departure, whether temporary or permanent, could mean the end of an era.
Former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, Mose's brother and the defendant in a separate public corruption case, is widely credited with having thwarted a move to merge the Southern and LSU systems back when he served in the state Senate and also worked as the Southern system's lawyer. His wife Andrea Green Jefferson has spent years as an administrator at SUNO and at the Southern system's headquarters.
Nearly two years after Gill Pratt, a former Jefferson aide, lost her City Council re-election bid, Ukpolo put her on staff. He apparently also supported her appointment to his executive cabinet after she was indicted.
He or any other chancellor might have gotten away with such a tone-deaf move in the old days, when SUNO still had a powerful political patron. Those days are over.
Stephanie Grace is a staff writer. She may be reached at 504.826.3383 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.