The Son of Grambling vs. Grambling State University

How Rick Gallot’s presidential appointment will shape the final fight for Grambling’s survival.

How Rick Gallot’s presidential appointment will shape the final fight for Grambling’s survival.

Weeks after the 2014 appointment of Cynthia Warrick as Grambling State University interim president, Grambling alumnus and prominent legislator Rick Gallot presented Warrick with an inaugural corporate gift from AT&T in support of the university hosting a ‘Hack-A-Thon’ event to bolster black STEM participation.

The presentation was five months after Gallot, a long-serving member of the Louisiana legislature in both its House and Senate, announced that he was dropping out of the state’s 3rd District Court judge elections, citing a need to spend more time with family.

Six months later, Willie Larkin began his tenure as the ninth president of Grambling State University. Among his first official acts was receiving a $50,000 check from AT&T, aimed at providing scholarships for 23 students in the university’s science and technical programs.

Gallot was among the list of distinguished speakers for the event.

“Supporting STEM education in Louisiana is of the utmost importance if we are going to continue to move forward as a global leader in innovation,” said Gallot. “These students are our future, and we must continue to invest in their education and development if we want to continue to see growth.”

One month after Larkin’s appointment as Grambling’s third president in three years, Gallot surprised Louisiana’s statewide electorate by announcing he would not run for a second senate term, again citing a desire to spend more time with family and to be closer to home.

A year later, Gallot is the unanimous choice of a 26-day presidential application process to lead one of the nation’s most recognizable, yet politically vulnerable HBCU brands. Seemingly groomed for him over two presidencies, two election cycles, and against mounting issues with accreditation, enrollment and shrinking confidence among alumni and faculty, some stakeholders believe the Grambling presidency is no longer a showcase of the University of Louisiana System’s disdain for its sole historically black member institution.

For them, the school’s highest office is now the symbol of a grand plan to marginalize its appeal, utility and sustainability, disguised perfectly in the form of a native son, draped in black and gold.

Grambling is a classic war epic, rapidly approaching its gory, emotional apex. It is an institution fighting battles against its athletic and faculty traditions, its own geography, and the political culture which wants to seize its land and resources; all in the midst of the industrial crisis that is 21st century higher education.

There are distinct realities about Grambling which no one wants to face, but everyone should know to be extraordinary obstacles to the university’s survival. Its credentialed and well-intentioned faculty nurtures students from whatever conditions in which they arrive to the campus, but who ravage its leadership with seemingly annual votes of no-confidence.

Maybe those votes are for the University of Louisiana System Board of Supervisors. But GSU faculty have never been on the record with requests for Louisiana’s governor to have ULS board members removed; only requesting the ULS board to remove Grambling presidents.

Nursing has collapsed. The university’s top programs do not generate windfalls in federal grants to help the programs or the university gain financial traction. With the exception of criminal justice, most of these same degree offering are illegally duplicated by nearby Louisiana Tech, which beyond being constitutionally unlawful, helps in siphoning students away from Grambling on a dramatic, annual basis.

These are realities of which Grambling insiders are fully aware, but put aside in the public square to grapple with the ULS Board about who occupies the presidential seat and how they got there. Many of the Gramblinites who live in driving distance of the campus prioritize the competitiveness of Tiger football over the solvency of the school’s leadership.

Alumni who populate cities like Dallas, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and Houston simply aren’t close enough to afford the travel to oppose ideas like the UL System appointing a ‘Person in Charge’ to replace the president it hired who referred to himself as ‘Grambling’s healer,’ and who got himself fired by lying about the nature of a trip to Cuba.

Louisiana is a national standard for how to destroy public investment in the higher education industry. Gallot, with his lengthy history in legislature, has a limited record of advocacy for new buildings or stabilized appropriations for Grambling.

In fact, the only major gift on record from Gallot to his alma mater? The $20,000 check he wrote yesterday, after being named president.

But even with the questionable search, fractured alumni base, institutional struggles and devastating state politics, there is some room for optimism around Gallot — partly because there is no other alternative. Gallot is the preferred candidate of the UL board, Grambling’s wealthy alumni, Louisiana’s black lawmakers, and its corporate community.

Short of completely losing accreditation, blowing through the university’s paltry endowment or a complete meltdown in admissions and recruitment which forces the university to suspend operations, there are few man-made forces or scenarios that can remove Gallot from the post.

He will be the long-term solution for Grambling. For better or for worse.

Some stakeholders believe his political connections to be the perfect remedy for a campus and a community which has suffered from a lack of clout in Baton Rouge.

Gallot represents exactly what most alumni were searching for — a native son with a self-made brand who could be a rainmaker for the university with corporations and private donors alike.

Perhaps he will become a president who can be more than a leader charged with learning Grambling culture, because he helped to build it through his example of success achieved away from campus, while maintaining strong roots within it.

Maybe Grambling alumni and faculty, who for years have blamed the board for the school’s presidential failures, will now learn that four presidential transitions in four years makes the position expendable, and malleable to the will of its advocates.

And because of that, maybe they take a new approach to philanthropy and engagement that means something beyond the search for personal favors and third-party nepotism.

Maybe the homecoming for one of Grambling’s favorite sons will force a new vision for GSU as an invaluable resource in the southeast and to the nation — a university which helps to be among America’s top producers of charter school entrepreneurs, police chiefs, journalists, scientists, and sports executives. A school that replaces economic stagnation in its surrounding community with job development, research and political action.

Maybe Rick Gallot can do it.

Maybe there’s something new ahead that we’ve not seen or imagined for Grambling. Maybe Gramblinites have not been forced to choose between supporting a fellow graduate and supporting alma mater.

But given who he is, and how he got back home, it is hard to imagine anything but the status quo inevitably leading to a regrettable end for a national treasure.

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