Many have no faith or trust in the listening sessions, search processes used by college board in the JSU presidential search

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On Wednesday, April 19, the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning held a series of Listening Sessions for Jackson State University (JSU) faculty, staff, students, alumni, and community persons. The sessions, held on the JSU campus and video-cast to those unable or not desiring to come to the campus, were designed to enable the college board to hear what the JSU community desires in its next president.

Many who had planned to attend as well as some who planned to view the sessions were skeptical of whether the sessions would result in yielding the ideal president for the institution. They generally based their opinions on the performances of and/or experiences with previous presidents and the search processes used in the securing and appointing of the individual presidents.

JSU has been under the jurisdiction of the state since 1940, President Jacob Reddix being the first president appointed by the state. The board, obviously, did its own board search without public input. The very next president, Dr. John Peoples, was recommended to the board by Reddix to be his successor. Thus, there was again no broad search.

The first president for whom there was a search was James Hefner. Although there was no broad campus involvement in the search nor any problem in terms of Hefner’s selection, he was chosen and brought to JSU by the board under very troubling circumstances. The college board had ousted President Peoples primarily because he had on many occasions stood up to be a genuine Black president for a developing Black college. He was very popular with every segment on the campus and in the local community. This was a difficult atmosphere in which Hefner had come.

The board’s transition from Peoples to Hefner was so swift and tacky until the graduation diplomas that had Peoples’ names on them were sent back to the printer and re-printed with Hefner’s name on them. The transition had been so unpopular until the JSU alumni president, Will Chambliss, and other community leaders had come out and blasted the board for its refusal to even consider Peoples if he applied for the position through a search. The commencement speaker, McKinley Martin, also expressed his displeasure at Peoples’ ouster in his address. Hefner, nevertheless, weathered the storm until he won the support of the faculty, students, and staff, and stirred the ire of Higher Education Commissioner W. Ray Cleere, who virtually sent him packing.

Dr. Herman Smith was then personally chosen by Cleere as the interim president. His role turned out to be ridding the campus of the provost, Dr. Carol Surles, who was about the business of promoting genuine Black education, including an attempt to establish a Black Studies curriculum. Surles, along with other undesirable faculty and staff, were targeted while the search was ongoing for a permanent president. 

In the matter of finding a replacement for Hefner, the college board, for the first time, created a campus search committee, headed by Dr. Velvelyn Foster and Dr. Dollye Robinson. The search process went quite well, due to the enthusiasm and competence of the campus committee members. It also ended well in large part because the campus search committee had favored the same person as the board, Dr. James Lyons. 

Lyons became popular on campus because he was very down to earth and remained quite open to the faculty senate, the student government, and the alumni. In time, however, his popularity waned. He was perceived as too compliant with the plans of Cleere, which was opposed by much of the faculty, students, and the community. After he fell out of favor on the campus and received a vote of “no confidence,” the board held on to him until he landed a presidential appointment in California.

At that time, Dr. Bettye Ward Fletcher was appointed as interim president. Apparently because of her great understanding and appreciation of the historically Black college, she was replaced after mere months on the job. To add insult to injury, the board made it clear that she would not be considered for the permanent position of president.

As had been the case when Hefner was relieved of the position, a campus search committee was formed to assist in the new search. Unlike the situation wherein Lyons had been favored by both the campus and the board, however, at that time, the board chose and appointed an individual, Ronald Mason, who was not even among the top five candidates on the campus rating scale. At the same time, the board spurned all-together the campus committee’s choice, Dr. Fletcher. Mason went on to serve as president for 10 years, despite having received a vote of “no confidence.” He departed for Louisiana, becoming president of the Southern University System.

The board then named Dr. Leslie McLemore as interim president. As had been the case with Fletcher, McLemore served only a matter of months before being replaced by Dr. Carolyn Meyers as president. 

By the time of that search, it should be noted, that the board had jettisoned the idea of creating campus search committees. Instead, it selected a group of individuals from the JSU community to serve as advisors in the process. Those advisors were sworn to secrecy, which seemed counter to the idea of gaining broad JSU community input in the search. The result of this search, wherein the board appointed Dr. Carolyn Meyers as president, as in the case of the search when Dr. William Bynum was appointed as president, there were serious disagreements between the board and the JSU search advisors over the appointment.

After several years, the board terminated Meyers for supposed problems in managing the university budget. Her replacement, interim president Rod Paige, was then personally chosen and tasked with restoring JSU’s financial health. By the end of his tenure, Bynum was ushered-in as indicated above amidst a real fire storm because the search advisors from the campus had been so badly duped and the JSU community so thoroughly disrespected.

After Bynum’s scandal-shortened tenure, Attorney Thomas Hudson was appointed as acting president. After his appointment, the board did not even pretend to conduct a legitimate search for a president. Instead, it announced a series of listening sessions for faculty, staff, students, alumni, and the community. The listening sessions turned out to be an excuse to say that since most people were satisfied with Hudson, the board would name him as permanent president, which it proceeded to do.

For those who were counting, this shows that of five searches wherein the board publicly engaged participation from the JSU community, on four occasions the desires of that community were completely ignored. (Of course, all of the interim presidents were chosen without a search.) From the perspective of many in the JSU community, each of the individuals chosen and appointed by the college board has proven to be bad news for JSU as a historically and genuinely Black college. In their minds, the college board has deliberately chosen the inferior candidates when searches were conducted. It has with just one exception selected a candidate different from the choice of the JSU community. 

The JSU community is now faced with another possible presidential search. Dr. Elayne Hayes-Anthony has been named temporary acting president and listening sessions have taken place. The question is whether the board will give her the job permanently because of the listening sessions or whether it already has in mind what path it will take. Many have questioned whether the board is using the faculty, staff, students, alumni, and the community as a sham in the search process.

Many who attended or viewed the listening sessions are leery of the college board because of the history of its actions. Many do not have good feelings because of how all of the historically Black universities – Alcorn, JSU, and Mississippi Valley State – have been manipulated and/or shortchanged in terms of presidential appointments. Furthermore, many are not trusting of the college board’s processes and procedures because of the current political atmosphere regarding education in the so-called Red States.

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Many have no faith or trust in the listening sessions, search processes used by college board in the JSU presidential search

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
April 24, 2023