College board opened a door in JSU presidential search, but remains silent on Alcorn’s search

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Last week, the college board met, deliberated, and departed without there being any discussion of the search for a permanent president at Alcorn State University. It has now been more than four months since Alcorn’s president, Dr. Felecia Nave, departed. Yet, there is no word on the search for a permanent president. 

Whether Nave resigned of her own free-will or was pressured out of the job remains an open question in many minds. Recalling the nature of the recent departures of the presidents of the University of Southern Mississippi, Delta State University, and Jackson State University, however, it is doubtful whether she left on her own. Like Nave, those presidents left without much explanation from the college board and without their having any expressed future plans.

In the case of Nave’s departure, Dr. Ontario Wooden attended the monthly board meeting, occupying the Alcorn presidential seat, without any explanation from the board, and was only publicly announced as interim president hours later. Then, within a matter of weeks, Wooden resigned and was replaced by Dr. Tracy Cook as interim president. After neither appointment did the board indicate when there would be a search conducted for a permanent president. 

There is a growing, if muted, concern, regarding that aspect of permanency or stability at Alcorn. When one considers the fact that not only have permanent presidents long since been named at the University of Southern Mississippi and Delta State University and actions regarding Jackson State University’s presidential search have been aired on several occasions, the question needs to be asked: “What about Alcorn?”

Hopefully, the silence on that question does not mean appointing a president for Alcorn is not a priority for the college board. Does it mean the board has been quietly working behind closed doors to select and appoint someone as Alcorn’s next permanent president? Does it mean the board is pleased enough with the posture and actions of Cook that they are willing to leave him in charge? Answers need to be provided. Not just Alcornites, but the state as a whole deserves a clear and honest accounting, and deserve it soon.

Meanwhile, in a June meeting, the college board took a vote to decide whether to again set aside its policy of not considering an individual who was serving as interim or acting president for the permanent position. By a vote of 7 to 5, the board decided to permit Dr. Elayne Hayes-Anthony, whom it had appointed “temporary acting president,” to be considered among the candidates for the permanent Jackson State University presidency. 

It is interesting to note that among the five who voted “no” on the matter were trustees Ormella Cummings, Steven Cunningham, Bruce Martin, Gee Ogletree, and Walt Starr. Martin is vice president of the college board and Cunningham is chairman of the board’s search committee as well as an alumnus of Jackson State University. It may or may not mean much that the vote was as it was, and was so close. It is also not clear as to whether the “no” votes were in opposition to setting aside the rule itself or were indications of how those trustees feel about the candidate herself. Dr. Cunningham was reported as indicating that he wanted to make it clear that the process was open; that he did not want to put a dampen on the process, with possible candidates feeling that things were weighed in favor of whoever was in the seat as an interim or acting president, lessening their chances of being seriously considered. 

That voting, nevertheless, at least meant that the JSU presidential search is on the board’s radar. Alcorn deserves the same attention. Citizens in general, but those who are Black and in higher education in particular, apparently, should clearly make their concern known.

In other board action, the need to undo actions taken at Jackson State University in 2016 emerged as an agenda item. In 2016, supposedly as a cost-saving measure, JSU’s theater program was moved to the Department of Art and its speech communication program was moved to the Department of English and Modern Foreign Languages. Both changes were initiated and carried out over the objections of scholars in the relevant fields.

At the meeting last week, the board was asked, in effect, to reverse itself. This means the programs would then be in situations where they can be more effectively supervised and administered. That should sit better with accrediting agencies as well as make for better decisions regarding faculty promotions and tenure. 

One can only wonder if such bad decisions can and will be avoided in the future. This speculation derives from the fact that such ill-advised changes are not unknown in situations where there are unwitting or uncaring powers-that-be pulling the strings of public Black institutions. Just for the sake of illustration, English should not be merged with modern foreign languages; history should not be merged with political science; nor mathematics with computer science, as has been the case on some Black college campuses. More thought and consideration should be involved in making such decisions. Fortunately, such re-thinking did occur regarding JSU this month. 

Finally. It is worth noting that among the summer graduates from the universities under the college board, only 174 of 3,404 were from the historically Black universities. That 5% is reflective of the amount of money invested in the historically Black institutions and the board’s attention devoted to them. A further reflection of those same two areas of neglect can be seen in the lists of the facilities requested by the institutions and the projects funded by the state legislature each session. 

The continually widening gap between what is provided to Ole Miss, Southern Miss, and Mississippi State compared to what is provided to Alcorn, JSU, and Mississippi Valley State is a matter that could easily form the basis of another Ayers case. The struggle continues. 

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College board opened a door in JSU presidential search, but remains silent on Alcorn’s search

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
August 28, 2023