Governor nominates four college board members, ensuring inequities remain 

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IHL president Bruce Martin accepting gavel from outgoing president Dr. Alfred McNair Jr.

Last week Governor Tate Reeves nominated four white males to serve on the board of trustees of state institutions of higher learning (college board). The nominees – Donald Clark Jr., Jerry L. Griffith, James Heidelberg, and Charles Stephenson – will have to be confirmed by the State Senate in order to become permanent members. Since there is not much of a public outcry to their nominations, however, they will likely be confirmed by the Senate and begin serving immediately.


Those four white male members will replace three white males – Chip Morgan, J. Walt Starr, and Tom Duff – and one Black male member, Alfred McNair. This means that the board will go from being nine whites and three Blacks to being 10 whites and two Blacks, Dr. Ormella Cummings and Dr. Steven Cunningham. In addition to that, the board will go from being constituted by 10 predominately white university (PWU) alumni and two historically Black university (HBU) alumni to having just one member HBU alumnus, Dr. Steven Cunningham, who graduated from Jackson State University. 

Dr. Cummings graduated from the University of Mississippi, thus being Black but not an HBCU alumnus. Dr. McNair graduated from Tougaloo College, being Black but not a graduate of one of the public HBCUs.

Reeves felt no need to appoint a nominee from Alcorn State University or Mississippi Valley State University, underscoring his racial insensitivity. There are enough seats on the board for a representative from each university. It has been nearly 30 years since MVSU has had an alumnus on the board. At no time in the writer’s monitoring of the system has there been an Alcorn alumnus. 

Furthermore, there has never been more than three Black members on the board at the same time. A one-quarter or less representation of Blacks on this board is unacceptable given Mississippi is nearly 40% Black.

During the past 50 years, as the terms of board members have expired, the sitting governors have been informed about the lack of Black board members and the lack of HBCU alumni board members and encouraged to include them. Most often, these requests have fallen on deaf ears. Until very recently, there has been only one or two Blacks on the board at the same time. For a long time, the lone Black person was Dr. Robert Harrison from Yazoo City. He was eventually joined by Mrs. Betty Williams from Starkville.

To add insult to injury, on several occasions the governor has nominated Black members who are PWU alumni. One governor went so far in the insult department that he nominated a Black female having only a high school diploma and knowing nothing about higher education. 

Another ploy used by many of the governors has been nominating Black individuals whose jobs or careers depended directly upon some white firm or overlord. In that way pressure could be brought to bear on these board members to vote the way that the power brokers desired them to vote on important issues before the board. Under such a condition one Black member was coerced to vote to merge his alma mater, MVSU, out of existence. Almost never have either of the Black board members publicly criticized or voted contrary to the sentiment of the white powerbrokers of the time. On the other hand, at least one Black board appointee, Johnny Walls, who was awaiting Senate confirmation of his appointment, was rejected because during one of his public speeches he gave the impression that he would be a champion for the HBCUs rather than merely “toe the line” in his decision-making.  


The primacy of race as a factor in the state of Mississippi has been so well documented until there is virtually no room for debate on the matter. The racial actions of the college board, however, may not be as well known. When the truth is revealed, however, the public can see that since its creation in 1944 the college board has almost always adhered to a policy of racial discrimination, upholding the principle of white supremacy.

By the time the Black Mississippians’ Council on Higher Education study was published, which formed the basis of the Ayers vs. Waller case in 1975, it already had been established that the historically white colleges and universities were being funded at rates much more generous than were the historically Black ones. The budget figures for 1973 showed that 23% of the funds went to Mississippi State University (MSU), 22% to the University of Mississippi (UM), 19.5% to the University of Southern Mississippi (USM), 11.3% to Jackson State University (JSU), 7% to Delta State University (DSU), 7% to Mississippi University for Women (MUW), and 5% each to Alcorn State University (ASU) and Mississippi Valley State University (MVSU). 

Despite federal court litigation to eliminate these racist funding disparities, figures for 2024 showed the same disturbing pattern: that 25% to MSU, 23% to UM, 22% to USM, 11.3% to JSU, 5.5% to DSU, and 4.5% to MUW, 5.5% to ASU only 5.5%, 4.5% to MUW, and 4% to MVSU.. 

These percentages, as racially unfair as they are and have been, form what the board and its staff call a formula. The so-called formula, however, just like political gerrymandering, is based upon a classification created by the board during the Ayers litigation to justify what it had already been doing. We emphasize that the board created the classification system and allocates funds as a part of its extensive oversight role, a role steeped in racist history.

In this and other regards, DSU and MUW also have periodically suffered because of the affiliations of the board members; they often are without representation on the board. They, nevertheless, have been able to keep their heads above water because they have key white alumni and Republican legislative supporters. 

A second role of the college board, which often goes unnoticed or at least unmonitored by the public, is that of program authorization. It is under the guise of program authorization that the board allowed MSU, UM, and USM to offer programs of study in close proximity to those offered on the campuses of ASU and JSU, hampering the latter two universities’ ability to grow and attract non-Black students. It was under its role of program authorization that the board for years refused to allow JSU to offer degrees in urban studies, even though the board itself had classified JSU as the state’s only urban university. Along its same racial line of reasoning, the board refused to allow JSU to establish a law school. 

Because of its authority in the area of program authorization, MSU, UM, and USM have generally gotten the nod for the establishment of attractive or futuristic programs. For years, the college board refused to allow ASU to have a nursing school, relenting to one being established in Natchez during the Ayers negotiation. Even now the board has authorized agricultural programs for MSU while holding ASU at bay, resulting in ASU reportedly being short-changed to the tune of $275 million in federal agricultural funds.

The board also has the authority to approve faculty and staff salaries. This is a primary factor in recruiting and retaining top-flight individuals to the positions. Whether looking at it in terms of immediate compensation or over the long-haul, including retirement benefits, the salary discrepancies of the HBCUs and the PWUs have a negative impact on the Black colleges. 

One can reasonably conclude that the salary discrepancies are racially motivated since a professor teaching Psychology 101 at MVSU is otherwise doing the same thing as a professor teaching Psychology 101 at USM. A freshman music teacher at JSU is doing the same thing as a freshman music teacher at UM. Since they are in the same system, these professors’ salaries should be the same. The college board allows the differences based purely upon its racist classification system. The same holds true for student scholarships, enabling the preferred universities to “buy” the preferred students, including student athletes.

The board, through its budgetary functions, authorizes tuition, room, board, and other fees. This results in some potential students being unable to afford and attend public colleges and universities. Consequently, many potential students, especially Black and Brown ones, attend on a part-time basis community colleges or trade schools, choose military service, or seek unskilled jobs.

These are some of the major, but not the only ways, in which the board has and continues to keep the HBCUs and their students disadvantaged. To eliminate these glaring disparities, the race and the alumni affiliation of board members is of crucial importance. 


Understanding the role and power of the college board, and reasoning that conditions were not likely to change, strong supporters of the state’s HBCUs began to take action. For example, plaintiffs in the Ayers case requested that the defendants “constitute the membership of the Board of Trustees of the State Institutions of Higher Learning so as to be reflective of the racial composition of the general population of the State of Mississippi or the overall student enrollment in the state institutions of higher learning.” That part of the argument was made throughout the case as it was litigated in the federal district court, the court of appeals, and Supreme Court. Not surprising to the plaintiffs, however, the courts offered no relief in this regard. The board, with all its powers, has remained a body appointed by the governor. The governors’ appointments do not reflect the racial makeup of the state or adequately include HBCU participation. 

At the same time, plaintiffs were addressing the courts with this matter, some state legislators filed bills to accomplish the same purpose. (None of those bills ever left the floor on which they were introduced.) Private groups, such as the Black Mississippians’ Council on Higher Education, the Mississippi Coalition on Black Higher Education, and the NAACP sought similar changes. One group suggested that rather than the board being comprised of political appointees, one each be selected by the constituents of the eight state institutions of higher learning. None of these ideas came to fruition, but they all underscore the fact that Black people have long been dissatisfied with the way in which the board of trustees is constituted.

This brings us back to the truth that Governor Tate Reeves’ nomination of four white males to the college board – Clark and Heidelberg from USM, Griffith from DSU, and Stephenson from MSU – with Senate confirmation, ensures the continued inequities that Alcorn, JSU, and MVSU have long experienced in terms of funding, program authorization, faculty and staff compensation, scholarship money, and access to needy students.  

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Governor nominates four college board members, ensuring inequities remain 

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
May 6, 2024