OPINION: What’s happening to Mississippi’s Black women college presidents?

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Even as word was circulating that a significant number of Tougaloo students and alumni were very displeased with Dr. Carmen Walters as president, the college board announced the resignation of Alcorn’s president, Dr. Felecia Nave. Then as the writer discussed those Black college presidential shake-ups, he learned that Dr. Ivy Ruth Taylor was being replaced as Rust College’s president. The negative assessment of those Black college presidents within such a short period of time caused many to ask, “What’s happening to Mississippi’s Black women college presidents?”

Honestly, without having a great deal of credible, detailed information, it is difficult to make meaningful comments on the subject, even though the question needs to be answered. The task is further frustrated since the college board, as it has done on many other occasions, refuses to comment on any displeasure it had with Dr. Nave. Finally, the fact that in the cases of Rust College and Tougaloo College, it is not even a matter of having a racist board making the adverse action to oust these sisters from the positions. Yet, to many there is the question of what’s happening to Black female presidents in Mississippi.

That question, however, can be modified when one considers the fact that Jackson State University has undergone three presidential changes since Tate Reeves has been governor, two Black men being ousted. This, along with the “resignation” of Dr. Rodney Bennett at the University of Southern Mississippi, moves the question beyond Black women to what is happening to Black college presidents in Mississippi. Although the University of Southern Mississippi is predominately white, Bennett is Black. This means that three Black male presidents were removed within a matter of months.

Finally, when one considers the college board’s actions in the latest presidential change at the University of Mississippi and at Delta State University, the question expands even beyond Black college presidents. Even the white presidents are endangered in this conservative-charged atmosphere where an appointed college board rules supreme.

Rather than attempting to deal with all eight of the changes in one fell swoop, underscored are several things that one can note and several things that bear watching both immediately and in the long-run. Then, next week and at other points in the near future, the matter of instability in Mississippi’s institutions of higher learning will be re-visited. 

For now, the following facts should be kept in mind. 

 (1) It is true that generally the tenures of the females involved have been of shorter durations than those of their male counterparts. This is a matter that can and should be studied in order to see what, if anything, may account for that reality and how it can be ameliorated. 

(2) Thus far, Dr. Walters is still on the job; Tougaloo’s board has voiced no opinion nor taken any action. Therefore, she is a part of the concern, but is not to be counted out in the same way as have been the others. In the case of Dr. Taylor, although we have not yet been apprised of the board’s action, there seems to be a widespread understanding that her departure is imminent. This leaves the discussion to revolve around the changes at the public universities. 

(3) In the majority of the cases where there have been presidential replacements, the public college presidents have “resigned” without having other positions to which they were going. An exception is Dr. Dan Jones who went back to a position at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Furthermore, in the majority of the cases, the presidents have “left quietly in the night”; President William LaForge at Delta State being the exception. On his way out the door, he issued a statement indicating that it was not a matter of his resigning to pursue anything better. Other than that statement, they have gone quietly. 

This brings us to realize that these presidents have been pressured or forced out. They did not just resign. One can speculate about the details in each individual case, but such professionals in their primes do not just leave without clear future plans and they certainly do not leave quietly under clearly adverse conditions unless there is much which they know that is unknown to the public.

The questions are raised and point to the situations because higher education is too much of a cornerstone to simply let things drift as they are and have been. The matter of who selects the leaders of the institutions, the type of persons selected to lead, the resources with which they must work, and in many cases the type of insulation/freedom/protection that they are provided are all matters that need to be examined and effectively addressed by all parties concerned – faculty, students, alumni, and community. After all, they, not just the boards, should be highly involved in determining what happens to Mississippi’s college presidents.   

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OPINION: What’s happening to Mississippi’s Black women college presidents?

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
May 8, 2023