Dennis Shields isn’t an HBCU graduate, a native of Louisiana, or entangled in the roots of its politics. His background isn’t built on land-grant administration, he didn’t blow people away in his public interview, and he doesn’t appear moved by the cultural touchstones that resonate with most Jaguars.
In a one-of-a-kind system in the HBCU landscape, Shields looks and sounds like an average brother with above-average success in higher education. And that’s what makes him such a unique pick for Southern. Shields isn’t a shark by most standards of a first impression. Yet he survived in a tank with two other candidates showing the best of their potential to bite and make a mark in Baton Rouge. He was picked to lead Southern through rough socio-political waters by a board that has earned its own reputation for putting blood in the water.
When you compare Shields to his competitors, it may seem difficult to see how he beat out University of Arkansas Pine Bluff Chancellor Laurence Alexander and outgoing Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough. One seemed to be easy money in terms of his lineage and leadership experience, while the other was the kind of celebrity of sorts that would put Southern in the news instantly for reasons beyond scandal or struggle.
But looking at the last few president and chancellor picks for Southern, it may not be so hard to believe. Southern University at New Orleans Chancellor James Ammons was the heir apparent to replace outgoing system president Ray Belton, a quiet Southern lifer imported to Baton Rouge from his longstanding leadership spot in Shreveport and oversaw the stabilization of the system and its flagship campus.
Something happened, and Ammons wasn’t advanced to the round of finalists. But Ammons, like Shields, wasn’t a Jaguar born and bred. Were he to have gotten the job, he would’ve been a departure from prominent Southern or Louisiana higher education figures like Belton, James Llorens, and current University of the District of Columbia President Ronald Mason; all of whom served in the president, chancellor, or dual leadership post.
In this way, Shields seems to be is a version of Ammons that the system may have wanted all along; a wholistic outsider with no pretentiousness or demanding politics attached. Instead, he’s someone who can appreciate the value of a system having led a campus in the University of Wisconsin campus network and who seemingly owes no favors beyond those promised to the board and alumni influencers who hired him.
It’s not flashy or HBCU sexy, but it may be just the thing Southern wanted and needed all along.