In the History Corner…    Potential power and freedom for public Black colleges

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In last week’s edition of the Jackson Advocate, we wrote an article on Dr. John Peoples entitled, “As Dr. John Peoples turns 96, Jacksonians continue to benefit from his presidency.” In that article, we indicated several things that he did early in his presidency that can be revisited by public Black colleges today that would help develop their power and freedom as they labor under frequent racist dictates of the college board and the Office of the State Institutions of Higher Learning.

Peoples established the first faculty-senate, elevated the national alumni association to a level of greater partnership, and he accorded more visibility and respectability to the Student Government Association (SGA). Each of these became sources of potential power and freedom for the college. 

As each of these initiatives began bearing fruit, however, it was counteracted by the board and commissioners of higher education. So effective were their counter moves until many did not realize what was happening, leaving the board actions as obstacles to the development of what should have been the legitimate power and freedom of the colleges.

As in a chess match, prior to dealing with the three initiatives above, the college board first found a way or a reason to relieve Peoples of the presidency. Otherwise, the SGA, alumni association, and faculty-senate could rise up and exert their power to help him achieve his goals for JSU. The board, thus, proceeded to claim that he was not effectively managing the university’s finances. 

Bound-up with that decision, the board decided that it would not enable another alumnus to again be appointed to head the university. Such an individual, it was assumed, would bring the same type of institutional loyalty and emotional support to the position. From that point forward then, the board has been very careful in monitoring JSU presidential searches. Peoples had been recommended by President Jacob Reddix. Not only has such a practice never been repeated, even the advice of the Jackson State Campus Advisory Committees has most often been ignored, if not outright contradicted. The most recent board position that has been taken is that, whatever search committees are created, the members may remain anonymous to one another. In short, the board has made sure that the president will always be completely beholden to them and less concerned about satisfying any other constituent(s). This same pattern has been observed at other public Black colleges and referred to as a plantation environment; the president is there to carry out the will of the board and to keep the faculty and students in line. 

Within a fairly short period of time, changes were made that would further isolate whoever was selected as president of JSU, Alcorn, or Mississippi Vocational College. It was clearly illustrated in the Ayers lawsuit wherein the college board successfully moved that in cases wherein the system was sued, the Black college presidents would necessarily be listed as defendant along with the board.

One by one, the three potentially powerful partners of any future Black president were dealt with. When W. Ray Cleere was commissioner of higher education, the James Lyons administration created three administrative positions that oversaw the Student Government Association. These staff members were charged with approving or disapproving any SGA activity. On several occasions, they went so far as threatening to terminate the stipends being provided to the SGA officers. On one noted occasion, the SGA had voted to charter a campus bus to attend a federal hearing of the Ayers case in Oxford, Mississippi. On the morning that the bus was to roll, the students learned that the move had been blocked by the administrative staff overseeing the SGA.  From the early days of such neutering of the SGA under Lyons, that body has ceased being a partner for the power and freedom of JSU as a public Black entity. It has been hampered by its administrative overlords.

When Thomas Meredith was appointed the commissioner of higher education, he advanced the idea that the national alumni association and other such non-campus support organizations should be required to sign “affiliation agreements.” These agreements were designed to prevent such support groups from exercising power or taking positions that were unpopular, especially in cases wherein the board has pressured the presidents into making decisions contrary to the best interest of their institutional constituents. The signed agreements would enable any contrary group to be dis-affiliated from the university. Several of the university alumni associations balked at the idea of signing the agreements, among them were Mississippi University for Women (MUW) and Jackson State University. MUW’s alumni association took the matter to court, where they lost. The JSU alumni association’s agreement was signed without the knowledge of its board of directors. From that day forward, the alumni associations have carefully avoided taking position or sponsoring actions different from the presidents no matter how detrimental the president’s actions may have been. Like the SGA, they have ceased being a partner in advancing the power and freedom of JSU as a public Black entity.

Finally, the faculty-senate has been rendered less effective by often being threatened by the president. At least twice, JSU’s faculty-senate has voted no confidence in a president whom it felt was not acting in the best interest of the faculty and/or students.  Those two were James Lyons and Ronald Mason. In both cases, the presidents pressured the faculty-senate leaders, causing some faculty to back away, leaving them vulnerable to attacks by administrators and even other faculty. In more recent times, the college board has made it easier for the presidents to fire faculty or take away their tenure, which opens them up to being fired more easily. In many cases, presidents at some of the Black universities have been so beholden to the board that they have not only opposed senate actions, but undermined the very legitimacy of the faculty-senate.

Far more than their white counterparts, the public Black colleges are without true academic freedom and power. Instead, their presidents are expected to “ride herd” over their students and faculty.

While that has long been a fact, it clearly does not have to remain the case. The early actions of John Peoples show that a different reality is possible. On each campus, the Student Government Association, the faculty-senate, and the alumni association are still intact. It is up to the members of those groups to adopt the spirit of John Peoples and the activists of earlier years. Where there is unity, there is strength. Together, they can lift JSU to the level where it belongs and that is on par with the white public universities, not just in Mississippi but around the country and the world. Furthermore, what is true for JSU is also true for the other public Black colleges around the country.

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In the History Corner…    Potential power and freedom for public Black colleges

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
September 5, 2022