OPINION: To where is Jackson State University being steered?

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For the past month, many Jackson State University alumni and supporters have been intensely concerned about and busily discussing administrative appointments at the institution. Less than three months into his term as president, Dr. Marcus Thompson announced the appointment of Dr. Kylon Alford-Windfield as Vice President for Enrollment Management, Dr. Alla Jeanae Frank as Special Assistant to the President and Chief Transformation Officer, Attorney Van Gillespie as Chief of Staff, Attorney Onetta Starling Whitley as General Counsel, Dr. ConSandra McNeil as Interim Vice President for Research and Economic Development, and Dr. Mitchell Shears as Executive Director of Title III Programs.

The fact that two of the six appointees, along with Thompson himself, came immediately from the Office of the State Institutions of Higher Learning, (IHL) raised eye brows. It fed the belief of many that the commissioner and the college board were making a clear move to more openly take charge of Jackson State University which spelled bad news for JSU and Black higher education in general.

From the beginning, Thompson’s selection as president had been criticized because he had been named president despite the fact that he had not originally applied for the position, that his credentials were not as stellar as those of several other candidates who had applied, and that the date of his receiving the doctoral degree was not immediately revealed. Thompson had been drafted, so to speak, after and as a result of having served under Commissioner Alfred Rankins Jr. That and his appointment of Dr. Frank and Attorney Gillespie, both of whom had been intimately involved with IHL, gave the appearance that IHL would now have much more direct influence in steering JSU along certain paths rather than JSU being able to develop as its faculty, students, and higher education accrediting bodies deemed most relevant and academically effective.

In all honesty, the writer realizes that such steering of JSU is not new. Over his 45 years as a faculty member, but most particularly his 11 years as faculty senate president, two years as president of the University Faculty Senates Association and 20+ years as an active plaintiff in the Ayers higher education case, he witnessed JSU being steered by IHL first-hand. These examples of steering or micro-managing include, but are not limited to the following. 

(1) One president was forbidden from offering the same percentage of faculty raises as was being offered to Mississippi State’s faculty, despite the fact that his budget could afford the raises; he was eventually fired as he became too aligned with the faculty. 

(2) One president was compelled to furlough faculty and staff members until hundreds of thousands of dollars were extracted to cover missing inventory items. 

(3) During negotiations and at trial, one president was “persuaded” to reject the idea of JSU being given administrative control of the University Medical Center and ownership of Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium. 

(4) One president was encouraged to float the idea of merging Mississippi’s three HBCUs. 

(5) After having his staff determine and catalogue repair and renovation needs on the campus, one president was compelled to use that Ayers-awarded money to buy-up property in the surrounding neighborhood in order to make the area more attractive to white students and residents. 

(6) One president was “persuaded” to freeze faculty salaries due to excessive expenditures which IHL had approved under a previous president. 

(7) One president was compelled to recommend removal of a provost whom IHL opposed because of her protection of JSU from curriculum incursions stipulated in the Ayers case. 

(8) Most of the presidents, to this day, have been reluctant, due to IHL pressure, to ask the state legislature for needed facilities funds for their campus, even when such items would strengthen the attraction of programs and their chances to accreditation. 

 These are just some of the ways in which JSU has been “steered” into more restricted postures through micro-management by IHL. It has come to be what many, including presidential candidates, expect. (JSU president John Peoples was an exception to the rule on this score. On several occasions, he persisted in pursuing numerous programs which IHL opposed JSU having. He pursued facilities which IHL refused to fund. On at least one occasion, Dr. Peoples protected protesting JSU faculty from IHL’s wrath when their programs were being closed by IHL. It is possible and often advisable for the presidents, with the expressed support of faculty, students, alumni, and professional organizations, such as accrediting agencies, to resist these incursions on the part of IHL.)

 To many observers, the fact that JSU’s president is straight out of IHL, as are his chief of staff and chief transformation officer, sets up a perfect storm for steering the university where IHL would have it go. On traditional higher education campuses, there is not even a need for a chief of staff. The provost is the person second in line. JSU’s first chief of staff was clearly superfluous, initially described by the president as the person who would oversee the institution in his absence. He later described the chief of staff as the person who was the supervisor of the non-faculty employees. Yet, we now see a situation wherein an individual who has been most comfortable with and dear to the college board will be in a position to decide who even gets to be heard or seen by the president; to be the president’s front man. Similar to the chief of staff, the position of chief transformation officer is superfluous; it is not clear what the person is suppose to do, except what the president and IHL desire them to do. One can imagine that this person will be a key figure in deciding if, when, and how JSU is transformed. In any case, the office gives the president an additional supporter, if and when needed to off-set any progressive ideas from the provost or other such traditional advocates of students and faculty.

Lest we forget the original point of this discussion, we will close by indicating that for some years, at least since the initiation of the Ayers case, because of its location and the creative vision of Peoples, IHL has sought to keep JSU in check. Former college board member, James Luvene recognized the potential of JSU and developed a proposal that would have greatly enabled JSU and USM to so develop, along with more recognition to Alcorn, MVSU, and MUW. He was summarily ignored by the white college board members as well as the commissioner.

What many JSU supporters fear is that these latest JSU appointments are geared to forestall such in the future. They fear that IHL is attempting to effectuate a scenario whereby JSU can be held in check for the near future, if not put in a predicament from which it may never be able to recover, or achieve its potential. 

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OPINION: To where is Jackson State University being steered?

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
February 23, 2024