Black colleges’ not so silent cry for united struggle

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Last month it was with sadness that the writer received the news of the serious controversies between Alcorn’s president and the students and faculty.  The same thing happened when he heard of the bachelor’s degrees in history, government and political science, and sociology being collapsed into one degree in social science.  Those two incidences occurred just over a year after Jackson State University’s president was given $250,000 to undertake a study that will likely lead to JSU being ousted from Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium.  Someone may ask, “And what do those things have to do with one another?”  

The connecting link is that, in each case, the fate of a Black university is at the mercy of the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning (the college board) and that the matters were the sort anticipated in the pre-Ayers lawsuit days.  Each has easily traceable historical roots.  

It has been reported that the students and faculty have notified the college board of the matter, hoping that their letter of no confidence would lead to the removal of the president.  The full nature of the dispute that is being experienced at Alcorn State University is not something to which the writer is privy.  Nevertheless, based upon years of experience and observation, he is aware that no matter the nature of the controversy, the college board will determine the outcome whether through action or inaction.

Based upon past experiences, we have seen the college board react almost as if it was a mark of success or honor if a president aroused the opposition of the faculty or students.  In the case of two JSU presidents – James Lyons and Ronald Mason – there were votes of no confidence taken to which the college board provided no response.  At the other end of the spectrum, we have seen the board refuse to consider contract renewals for several presidents who were popular on their campuses, including John Peoples, James Hefner, Bettye Ward Fletcher, and M. Christopher Brown.  Thirdly, we have witnessed situations wherein the college board seemingly deliberately chose presidential candidates who were not the top choices of the faculty and students.  These include Donna Oliver, William Bynum, Ronald Mason, and Carolyn Meyers.  In several of those cases, it was only a matter of a few years before controversies developed and the presidents were let go.  

It, therefore, would be no surprise if nothing is done by the college board in Alcorn’s case.  It often appears that the college board is not deeply concerned about how peaceful or progressive things are on the campuses, just that they are firmly in control; the presidents work for them.

The matter of the college board’s governance role in selecting, retaining, or firing presidents was noted in the Ayers litigation, even at the Supreme Court level, but not considered in the settlement negotiations.  So, today Alcorn State University is plagued very directly.

The college board, through its governance role, also has the authority and the power to assist the colleges, such as Mississippi Valley State University, to progress, stand still, or even retrogress.  That is, if there is genuine interest in them.  Over the years, several governors have suggested closing Mississippi Valley State University and at least one proposal by the college board has been submitted to the courts to close it.  The university has been so vulnerable because it has remained relatively small, overwhelmingly Black, and has seldom had anyone on the college board who was an alumnus of or advocate for the university.  

Aside from the university itself being under threat at one point, MVSU President Donna Oliver surrendered a potentially game-changing program in recorded music which is now thriving under Delta State University.   That downsizing move hurt the university.  The current idea of MVSU moving backwards in terms of degrees offered is still another step in the pattern of downgrading since the days of President James H. White.  These moves remind observers of the fact that during the administration of President Rod Paige, JSU was downgraded in a similar re-organization effort, and during the administration of Higher Education Commissioner W. Ray Cleere, a massive program review was ordered, which resulted in the loss of other programs at JSU.  

Like the issue of governance, the matter of program offerings was argued in Ayers.  Now in the waning days of the case, not only are there no high profile or high demand programs being authorized at the Black universities, even traditional programs in education and liberal arts are being lost.   

Finally, it does not seem to matter that the state of Mississippi, in the settlement of Ayers vs. Mabus, intimated that Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium would be the home of JSU.  The state is now, with the apparent approval of the college board, ready to oust JSU from the stadium.  This action is in addition to a series of financial restraints placed on the budgets of JSU over decisions made by the employee that the board hired, President Meyers, decisions which it apparently approved. 

We point to these negative incidents because in each case we see a Black university struggling alone.  When the Ayers lawsuit was filed in 1975, attorneys Isaiah Madison, Alvin Chambliss, and a few other lawyers, along with a group of activists and alumni from Alcorn State University, Jackson State University, and Mississippi Valley State University, had the vision, skills, and courage to unite for the higher educational interests of Black Mississippians.  

The same cry for help, for united struggle, can be heard today.  The universities need help to get a significant number of HBCU advocates and sympathizers on the college board.  They need help to get university salaries equitably re-aligned across the system.  They need help to get scholarships upgraded and re-aligned.  They need help in securing sufficient facilities and equipment and having them consistently upgraded and maintained.  

None of these things were accomplished through the Ayers case.  As a result, 19 years after the settlement, it is clear that not much was significantly done for Alcorn, Jackson State, and MVSU.  Additionally, today they are treated as low priorities in the system and are set to be pushed further back on the list.  The colleges’ not so silent cry for help can be heard today.  The question is, “Who hears their cries?”  Better still, “Who will adequately respond to those cries?”   

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Black colleges’ not so silent cry for united struggle

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
November 15, 2021