JSU faculty senate vote of no confidence reflects a historical higher education problem in Mississippi

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On Thursday, January 26, 2023 the faculty senate at Jackson State University passed a resolution expressing no confidence in President Thomas Hudson and four of the eleven members of his cabinet – Vice President Joseph Whitaker, Vice President Michael Bolton, Human Resources Director Robin Pack, and Associate Provost Brandi Newkirk-Turner – by a vote of 17 to 5. The senate’s resolution of no confidence referenced a refusal to practice “shared governance” as the primary problem. Shared governance is a concept and principal that has for a number of years been advocated and often followed by college and university administrations. It is a practice that is expected by regional accrediting agencies as well as other respectable entities in higher education. Reportedly, the most concrete example of the lack of shared governance is that President Hudson has not met with the executive committee of the faculty senate since August, whereas the standards practice had been a meeting once a month. Repeatedly throughout its resolution, the senate complained about the lack of shared governance and transparency, and the harm that has resulted from such action.

Despite its severe criticism, the resolution left the door open for the Office of State Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) to assist in resolving the matter. In that sense, the senate reflected an understanding of IHL’s history and displayed a relatively cooperative spirit.

The vote did not come as a total surprise since matters had been deteriorating throughout the academic year. Similarly, the response to the vote was somewhat predictable. On the one hand, the press solicited comments from several faculty members who were not members of the faculty senate, who both were critical of the vote. On the other hand, President Hudson pointed to a number of things accomplished during his administration, including increasing the university’s cash reserve, successfully meeting the demands for regional accreditation, securing $65.8 million in research money, and providing faculty and staff raises. He also expressed a willingness to work with the faculty senate.

The faculty senate indicated that it is sharing the resolution of no confidence with IHL, including the board and commissioner, and with the JSU staff senate, student government association, and national alumni association. Any response from IHL would likely be welcomed.

With that in mind, it may be informative to turn to the history of such votes. (1) In the Spring of 1997, the JSU faculty senate discussed a vote of no confidence against President James Lyons. Due to the subsequent level of intimidation, the faculty senate authorized an independent group to conduct such a vote to include the JSU faculty. As a result, of that effort, by a vote 74% to 26%, the faculty expressed that it had no confidence in President James Lyons. The senate followed that up by presenting those results as well as the senate’s own vote at a news conference. That Spring and for the next two years, the senate sent memoranda to the college board expressing its lack of confidence in Lyons. The reaction was not only a deaf ear from IHL. The mainstream press and the JSU alumni association did the same. Consequently, for two years, faculty senate leaders had to endure various forms of isolation, criticism, and intimidation from supporters of the administration. The bottom-line is that the college board did nothing to address the vote of no confidence nor the complaints, including a lack of shared governance, which generated the vote.

(2) In the Spring of 2009, the faculty senate took a vote of no confidence against President Ronald Mason. Again, the response of the college board was one of dead silence and immobility. In the meantime, Mason, reportedly, tried to individually pressure the faculty senators to change their votes. As that failed, Mason remained in his position until he left for the presidency of Southern University in the Spring of 2010. The lack of engagement in shared governance and the continued acceleration of administrative positions and salaries were not addressed by Mason nor the college board.

The matter of the college board ignoring votes of no confidence has not been confined to JSU. In the Spring of 2012, Mississippi Valley State University’s Faculty senate voted no confidence in that university’s president, Dr. Donna Oliver. As president of the Faculty senate, Dr. Samuel McNair, who had led the effort, was terminated shortly thereafter in what his lawsuit claims was retaliation for the no confidence vote. Meanwhile, the college board did nothing regarding McNair’s predicament nor the vote of no confidence against Dr. Oliver, which had also referenced a lack of shared governance.

When one considers the fact that nothing was done in the four aforementioned cases of no confidence votes, he/she could easily conclude that votes of no confidence mean next to nothing so for as the college board is concerned. This seems to be because of the conservative mentality of the state’s political leaders and the racism of the political system. At one point there was a vote of no confidence against the college board itself. This occurred in October 2019, when the Faculty senate voted no confidence in the board based upon its appointment of a president for the University of Mississippi and the process that it used, ignoring shared governance. IHL has long held a tight rein on the system of higher education, including the selection and retention of individual presidents. While there have been presidential changes elsewhere when votes of no confidence were taken, Mississippi has not followed that pattern. It has steadfastly refused to get rid of presidents based upon votes of no confidence coming from faculties or faculty senates. It is clear that in virtually every case, the presidents have been following the orders or wishes of the board as they ignored the pleas, advice, or suggestions of the faculty senates. The board is not interested in shared governance. It is dictatorial and expects the presidents to do the same if that means carrying out their orders.

In the face of this kind of history, one might conclude that conditions are apparently quite dire to have the JSU faculty senate proceed to present a vote of no confidence to IHL in spite of its history. 

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JSU faculty senate vote of no confidence reflects a historical higher education problem in Mississippi

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
February 6, 2023