(Madeline Aruffo/The Lens)

Southern University at New Orleans has tightened its procedures for processing academic scholarships following a report in The Lens that found the school did not honor generous offers its admissions department had made to a number of students, a university spokesperson said this week. 

A spokesperson, Janene Tate, also confirmed that Jacoby Tubbs, who worked as SUNO’s director of admissions for less than a year, is no longer working in that position. Tubbs had been director during the Fall 2020 semester when the majority of the scholarship problems occurred. The spokesperson did not provide more information about the circumstances of his departure, including whether it was related to the scholarship issues. The Lens was not able to reach Tubbs for comment. 

In January, The Lens reported that a first-year student at Southern University at New Orleans was offered a full-ride scholarship to the university, only to be told months after she moved into campus housing and began taking classes that she didn’t actually qualify for it. The university initially tried to charge her family thousands of dollars in tuition and housing costs that were supposed to be covered by the scholarship, removing the charges only after The Lens asked SUNO officials about the problem. 

What happened to the student wasn’t an isolated incident. The Lens found that several other students accepted scholarships covering at least part of their tuition to the university, which evaporated after they had started school. Officials at SUNO acknowledged the problem and said that an internal audit was underway, though they have since offered no details about the scope of the audit or when it will be complete.

In an interview last week, Domoine Rutledge, chairman of the Southern University Board of Supervisors, which oversees SUNO and four other campuses in the Southern University system, said that the university is working to ensure that the problems are not repeated.

“I want to forcefully say to you, this should not have happened,” said Domoine Rutledge, 

Chairman of the Southern University System Board of Supervisors in an interview last week. “Somebody should have known that those kids did not qualify. . . . Certainly, steps are being taken to ensure that that does not happen to another family.”

However, Rutledge said the board did not plan to address the scholarship issue at a meeting. And neither he nor administrative officials offered any updates on the status of the audit. The Lens filed a public records request on March 5 seeking more information about the audit, but has not received a response yet. 

Asked whether there had been any turnover in staff related to the problems, Rutledge said that three people who worked processing scholarships were no longer employed by the school, though a spokesperson later appeared to walk back his statement which implied turnover was connected to the scholarship issues.

Tightening scholarship procedures

Though she did not provide any details on the audit in response to The Lens’ questions, Regine Williams, another spokesperson, said that the university has recently implemented procedural changes to ensure that students are not mistakenly offered scholarships that they don’t qualify for. 

In a February email, Williams said that there is now a “single clearinghouse” for scholarship offers. 

“Regarding the three scholarships from the Recruitment Office (i.e., the Transfer, SUNO First, and Fellow Scholarships) all potential offers must be placed on a scholarship request form then submitted to the business office for processing. The student will then be notified of the offer by the Chancellor’s Office. Previously, there was no single clearinghouse for offers.”

Rutledge also says SUNO will implement a system of “checks and balances” to make sure no other students are offered scholarships they do not qualify for. 

“The changes that are expected to be implemented are that there is a specific check and balance before letters are written and kids are awarded scholarships, to ensure that the individual offered the scholarship is authorized to do so, and that [the students] qualify for the scholarships,” said Rutledge.

Board chair: Some employee turnover since revelations

Asked in the interview if there had been any employee turnover as a result of the revelations about the scholarship programs, Rutledge said that three individuals involved in processing scholarships are no longer working at SUNO, though he did not provide any further details regarding these individuals’ positions at SUNO, when they left, or the circumstances under which their employment ended. It is not clear if the three employees he mentioned included Tubbs.

Tate and an attorney for SUNO told The Lens early this week that the school was preparing a statement with further information on Rutledge’s comments. On Wednesday, the university provided a statement that did not address any questions but instead disputed The Lens’ characterization of Rutledge’s remarks, claiming he did not say that the personnel turnover was related to the scholarship issue. 

The statement, however, did not actually answer the question of whether it was related. The Lens provided the officials a partial transcript of The Lens’ interview about the botched scholarships, showing that Rutledge’s comments about the three former employees were a direct response to the question, “Has there been any turnover in personnel as a result of this?” The university did not respond by Thursday afternoon. 

Rutledge also said he did not know if the employees have since been replaced.

“It’s hard to say. You know, SUNO has gone through a significant belt tightening, and so I don’t know . . . if some of those positions were consolidated.”

In 2019, SUNO was placed on probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges because it lacked sufficient funding to support its programs. It was removed from probation in 2020 and is currently seeking reaffirmation of its reaccreditation.

Rutledge  said he did not have enough information to say whether he believed the problems were related to the school’s finances. But he added that he believed the main problem was simply that the students weren’t eligible for the scholarships that they were offered and accepted. 

He also said that he did not think the scholarship problems would affect the school’s reaffirmation of its re-accreditation because they have been corrected.

“The problem [was] that you don’t give a scholarship to a kid or a student who is not eligible for it.”

No board action

Asked if the SUS Board of Supervisors would bring the scholarship issue up for discussion at a meeting, Rutledge said, “as far as I’m concerned, this isn’t a matter that is ripe for any board discussion.”

“To the extent that there are policy considerations that are made — that need to be changed — in terms of those processes, then those would be board approved. But it’s my understanding that the policies in place were not necessarily inadequate — they just weren’t being followed,” he said, calling it “something that would be handled at the campus level.”

Rutledge also said he did not believe the scholarship issues would affect student confidence in SUNO’s scholarship program, in part because the problems were only limited to a small number of students. However, the full scope of the issues may not be clear until an audit is completed. 

“We are talking about a universe of five, potentially six students, out of thousands of kids. I think this is hardly a case where you have a systemic problem that is tarnishing the image of the school.”