OPINION: Has the college board violated the open meetings law?

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Several hours after the regular meeting of the board of trustees of state institutions of higher learning (college board), many people learned that Dr. Felecia Nave had been replaced by Dr. Ontario Wooden as president of Alcorn State University. The announcement, which made the evening news, came as a surprise to many people, both those who were in attendance at the meeting and those who were otherwise occupied.

It was clear that Wooden attended the board meeting instead of Nave. That, however, was not so unusual because occasionally one or the other of the university presidents may be absent and send another administrator as the university’s representative. It is routinely done. 

Therefore, the news of the presidential change came as a surprise. There had been no agenda item presented, consent or regular, during the meeting that dealt with a presidential change at Alcorn. As a result of that announced change, the writer decided to double-check the consent agenda since items on the consent agenda are passed without public discussion. What the record showed was that the only personnel item relative to Alcorn was a request to hire Dr. Adell Brown Jr. as Interim Vice President for Finance, Administrative Services, and Operations at a $185,000 per annum pro rata salary. There was no mention of Nave or Wooden. The writer then checked the previous special board meetings for such personnel actions regarding Alcorn and found no mention in those minutes either.

The absence of an agenda item at a regular or special meeting raises the questions: (1) When was the action taken? (2) How could the decision be made without a legitimate meeting being held?  (3) Was the action a violation of the open meetings law? For things to have occurred as they did was obviously a violation of public trust in that citizens/tax-payers expect and have a right to be kept informed of how their money is spent and their authority is utilized. That goes double for people who have a clear stake in Alcorn State University. Each time an action such as this is taken, extra money is paid to cover the termination of the president being replaced and to raise the salary of the upcoming president. Similarly, the faculty, staff, students, alumni, and others who have a relationship with the president are affected and should be considered in the matter.  

In addition to everybody being taken by surprise, there was no explanation of the reason behind the change. Surely the board does not expect the public to believe that President Nave left on her own volition “to pursue other opportunities.” It is possible that Dr. Nave could file suit, generating even more expenses that the state would have to pay. In addition, it is in the interest of the public to know that the actions were not “arbitrary and capricious,” that the system is in good hands.

The swift and virtual secret action in moving from Nave to Wooden at Alcorn State University on the heels of similar actions at Jackson State University further raises concern, even alarm. President Thomas Hudson was replaced by Dr. Elayne Hayes-Anthony last month. There was never an explanation when he was “noticed” that he would likely be terminated. As a matter of fact, it was nearly a month after the action that minutes were distributed showing that the board had given him the notice. There has still been no explanation to this date as to why the action was taken. In this kind of environment, citizens are left to wonder, what else is there that we do not know and for which there will never be an explanation?  

The board consistently fails or refuses to offer explanations to the public in cases such as these. It may be true that there is no legal obligation to provide such explanations, but it seems that in the name of transparency and of maintaining public trust, such explanations would be forthcoming.

We realize that a part of the equation is that the college board is responsible or accountable to no one. The members are appointed by the governor, but once in office report to nobody. This makes the board sovereign in its own sphere. It is not clear who, if anyone, could remove its members or how its actions can be halted or reversed, except through court action. Meanwhile, the board may continue to violate the open meetings or any other such law with impunity. 

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OPINION: Has the college board violated the open meetings law?

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
May 1, 2023