Concerns multiply over selection of J-State president

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Dr. Marcus Thompson

Just days before the Thanksgiving break, the College Board announced that it was appointing Dr. Marcus Thompson as president of Jackson State University. That announcement may have allayed some fears that the board would appoint a white person, at that time Dr. Hank Bounds, as president. It, nevertheless, did not put to rest the criticism that the college board does not in such matters have the best interests of JSU at heart. The same holds true when it comes to Alcorn and Mississippi Valley — the other state universities in Mississippi.

As news of Thompson’s appointment spread across the community and the country, various concerns were expressed. There were concerns about Thompson’s suitability for the job, concerns about the board’s selection process and the motives behind the appointment, and even concerns about how the board itself is constituted and operated, if things are ever to improve. The concerns come from elected officials in the city and county, from staunchly-supportive alumni, from civil rights lawyers and activists, and many others who observe such matters. 

THE APPOINTEE. There was the thought that Dr. Thompson may have been in the broad field of education for more than twenty years, but none of them were as even a mid-level college administrator. He has never worked as an educator at the college level; he has never worked as an educator at a historically Black college or university (HBCU). Some close observers and veterans of presidential searches have expressed the opinion that those two experiences are crucial for success at any HBCU.

Along that same line, others have suggested that having been an administrator at the state Department of Education and having been a high-level staffer at the office of State Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) is not the same as having the skills to lead the state’s largest historically Black university. Despite having functioned in those earlier positions, much of what may have been learned in them is not translatable to the position of university president.

It has also been expressed that having spent so much time steeped in the bureaucracies of the Department of Education and IHL could be a negative when it comes to trying to lead an HBCU. There is such a long history of bias against and negative attitudes toward majority Black institutions until it may be difficult to effectively champion JSU as an institution. There is a fear that as a former operative in the system, he is more likely than not to continue going along in order to get along.

Finally, there has been concern expressed over the fact that Thompson apparently did not feel strongly enough about the position of JSU president to have applied for the position when it became vacant. There is a big difference between volunteering and being drafted, even for a position such as President of JSU.

THE PROCESS. In arriving at a so-called preferred candidate, the college board operated in near complete secrecy. It appointed a campus advisory committee, but only enabled that committee to recommend traits and/or experiences it desired in a president. Once that list was compiled, the committee was given no other role and was kept in the dark as much as was the public about the search itself. This type of minimalized role and required confidentiality on the part of the advisory committee has been in place for JSU presidential searches since the search that yielded Dr. Carolyn Meyers as president. In the searches which yielded Dr. James Lyons and Attorney Ronald Mason as presidents, the campus advisory committees were permitted to view the credentials of the candidates and to rank them in terms of preference and suitability. It is more than ironic that “the bottom fell out” with the diminishing of the role of the campus advisory committees. These committees were replaced by the board itself in the selection of Drs. Meyers, Bynum, and Hudson as presidents. The committee had been overridden by the board in terms of the rankings for preference and suitability when Mason was selected.

The complete by-passing of the faculty in the matter of presidential searches violates the wisdom and the spirit, if not the letter of the law, when it comes to shared governance. On most enlightened or progressive campuses, the faculty plays a significant role in selecting their presidents. After all, the president is the leader of an academic enterprise and ought to have been baptized in academia. The faculty is expected by accrediting agencies and educational associations, as well as the community, to assess and recommend these academic administrators. Measures can be put in place to protect the identities of candidates who fear retaliation of their home campuses if they are not selected. It has been done before and can be done today.

As Mississippi’s college board has increasingly taken the opposite road — which consists of not including faculty in the search process — many realize the bad choices that have resulted. Lyons fell into bad favor as he opposed the idea of shared governance, followed the IHL idea of rejecting the Ayers proposals of JSU ownership of the state medical school and Veterans Memorial Stadium, and pursued the use of IHL allocations to buy-up land around JSU rather than use the funds to make needed repairs and renovations. Mason fell into bad favor as he recommended merging Alcorn, JSU, and Valley into one Black university, an idea that had been voiced by IHL Commissioner Ray Cleere and Governor Haley Barbour, and as faculty salaries fell further and further behind while the administrative budget soared to an unprecedented height. Meyers fell into bad favor over an inordinate number of firings and forced resignations and the board’s assertion that she had mishandled the budget. Both Bynum and Hudson fell into bad favor as a result of personal actions that resulted in public scandals.

What is now being alleged in a lawsuit being brought against the board by Dr. Debra Mays Jackson, has been felt and expressed by other JSU supporters following other bad presidential selections. A component of Jackson’s lawsuit states that the board, through proper vetting of Hudson, knew or should have known of Hudson’s misconduct before appointing him. Some long-time observers state that the board, through proper vetting, knew or should have known of Lyons’ vote of no confidence at Bowie State over the issue of shared governance; that the board knew or should have known of Mason’s federal investigation in New Orleans and his complete lack of higher education experience; that it knew or should have known of Meyers’ termination and unemployment for a year before being picked to head JSU; and that the board knew or should have known of Bynum’s background and propensities. Because of the secrecy surrounding the presidential searches, however, the board could pretend not to be aware of these flawed candidates since it was apparently not interested in the best interests of JSU in the first place.

The board’s current process has not served JSU well as the university loses momentum each time there has been a presidential change. Furthermore, it appears that several of the presidents were deliberately brought-in to carry out specific wishes of the college board. At least two, Drs. Rod Paige and Herman Smith, admitted as much.

THE COMPOSITION AND AUTONOMY OF THE BOARD. College board members are appointed by the governor. This increases the partisan nature of its composition since it means only partisan supporters or campaign contributors are seriously considered for the board. The irony of the situation is that the college board was initially created in order to shield the college administrations from political interference by the governor. Today, however, once the board members are appointed they tend to follow their political party’s line and wield power until their nine-year appointments end.

The college board is completely autonomous, having to answer to no one. The members can favor one institution over others, one race over others, or one gender over another in confirming employee selections, allocating funds, authorizing programs, and all other such matters. This reality makes it difficult to operate the most intellectually effective universities on affect progressive changes in the system. The only escape from the tyranny of the college board is for the legislature to change its structure and powers or for the courts to intervene, neither of which seems likely any time soon. 

Those in power and in favor remain in power and in favor. It can be political corruption of the highest order. While there was an outcry when the college board appointed its search consultant as Chancellor of the University of Mississippi, there has not been as much of an outcry over the fact that Thompson, who has obviously been aware of the search for the JSU presidency, was suddenly appointed to the position. It all smacks of “a good old boy network” that is not likely to benefit JSU going forward. Similarly, now that the Ayers Case has run its course, no one worries about the status or fate of Alcorn, JSU, or MVSU in terms of funding or development. The “good ole boy network” will work its will unmolested, until some contemporary activists step forward with an effective plan of action to bring it to a halt. The appointment of Dr. Marcus Thompson will not contribute to the eventuality.

As Thompson was sworn-in on Monday, November 27, concerns continued to linger or even multiply. It does not bode well for JSU as an institution. It does not bode well for Black higher education in the state. There has to be a change in the system itself, allowing all eight universities to progress and develop at optimum levels. 

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Concerns multiply over selection of J-State president

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
December 4, 2023