During the October meeting of the college board, its president, Tom Duff, revealed in direct comments the kind of negligence of which the board is and has often been guilty. While being questioned about the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) using funds allocated for the poor to build a volleyball stadium, Duff said that the money should be returned by the university because it went about it the wrong way.
As he was questioned more closely as to why the board had approved the item on its agenda, his response was that it was routinely approved as a part of the consent agenda. Regarding board members carefully reading the item on the agenda, he said, “They should’ve and I probably should’ve, but I didn’t see it.”
That one admission underscores how the business of overseeing higher education is often handled. Putting items on the consent agenda is also a way in which the board often deals with matters on which it does not care to have public discussion. Apparently, there was a desire not to publicly discuss that matter.
By now, even casual observers are aware that Nancy New and her son Zach, Brett Favre, Ted DiBiase and his two sons, welfare director John Davis, and perhaps Phil Bryant and other well-situated individuals have been caught up in the scandal wherein the Department of Human Services funneled somewhere in the neighborhood of $94 million to them and other agencies, money that should have gone to citizens who needed it to provide food for their families in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF). President Duff’s admission shows how much broader the net of such fraud is in terms of political involvement. It even appears that the current governor, Tate Reeves, is a part of an attempt to now cover up parts of the scheme.
USM was required to secure authority from the college board in order to accept the money and build the stadium. If the college board had not approved the actions, the stadium could not have been built with those funds. Perhaps the objections to the scheme raised by USM administrators is what led to the resignation of USM President Rodney Bennett.
What one can realize from this is that the college board is obviously guilty for the USM part of the misspending. Ignorance of the law is no excuse for its crime of negligence. It remains to be seen if the board will be prosecuted.
In the wake of Duff’s admission in this case, one cannot help but reflect back on other cases wherein there was similar negligence on the part of the college board. Those who can remember the ousting of Jackson State University president Carolyn Meyers may recall that the board accused her of overspending the university’s budget. What may now be understood is that the spending projects for which she was ousted had to have been approved by the college board. Just as the college board should be called on the carpet for the misspending of the $7 million to build USM’s volleyball stadium, it should have been called on the carpet for whatever misspending that occurred under her administration. It all had to have been approved by the board. Otherwise, she could have been charged by the board and prosecuted.
Duff’s admission of negligence in not carefully reading and considering items on the consent agenda says a great deal about how higher education matters are handled in the state. Such neglect led in part to Isiah Madison, Alvin Chambliss, and that historic team of lawyers filing the Ayers vs. Waller suit in 1974 on behalf of Alcorn State University, Jackson State University, Mississippi Valley State University, Coahoma Junior College, and Utica Junior College.
As USM issued a statement attempting to explain its position in the matter of accepting money to build its volleyball stadium, Duff admitted that he saw the statement but went on to say that, “When it started off with all the legalese, I glazed over.” This reminds one of similar situations from the Ayers case.
In at least two sections of the Ayers settlement agreement, it seems that college board members “glazed over.” One was when it came to the private endowments for Alcorn, Jackson State, and Mississippi Valley. The agreement stipulates a $35 million figure to be provided for a private endowment but side-steps any mechanism for securing such funds. In a second section of the agreement, there is the statement that Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium would be called the Home of the Jackson State University Tigers, but it legally avoids saying that it would become Jackson State University’s stadium.
It is these kinds of incidents that have hurt Mississippi’s historically Black institutions for years. It is a clear pattern of neglect and “glazing over” that continues to this day. In a small but significant way, Board President Tom Duff has admitted to the kind of negligence that is often seen in its operation, especially in situations involving historically Black universities. The question is, “Who will correct this condition and when?”