JSU mess may prompt changes to searches

Published 9:12 pm Monday, June 5, 2017

Members of the College Board often say that the most important thing they do is choose the presidents of Mississippi’s eight public universities.

It’s also the most controversial, as last week’s extraordinarily messy end to Jackson State University’s presidential search proved.

Trustees now say they’re going to consider changes in how they select campus leaders. But while unhappy Jackson State alumni say trustees should give each school’s supporters more voice in choosing, the outcome could be just the opposite.

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In the current process, trustees typically appoint dozens of faculty, alumni and supporters to read applications and suggest people to be interviewed. A smaller group of campus constituents is then usually invited to sit in on interviews and make recommendations to trustees.

Where the Jackson State selection began to run off the rails was when the eight campus members who took part in interviews all united behind JSU alumnus James T. Minor, a former deputy assistant secretary for higher education programs in President Barack Obama’s administration and now a senior strategist with the California State University system.

Trustees didn’t want to choose Minor or the other two finalists. Instead, they chose William Bynum, the current president of Mississippi Valley State University, who didn’t get past the first round of interviews.

Bynum was attractive because he improved Valley’s finances while reversing an enrollment decline that was imperiling Mississippi’s smallest public university. A financial crisis at Jackson State is prompting layoffs and consolidations of academic departments after previous President Carolyn Meyers overspent revenue. So Bynum’s financial record was clearly attractive. Plus, he was already known to the board.

But students, faculty and alumni were angered that their input was neglected, and began an unusually public pressure campaign to reverse the decision. They lost, but now say they hope for changes in future searches.

“There needs to be not only inclusion from the stakeholders, but the stakeholders having a viable vote in the process,” said Jean Frazier, a JSU alumna, retired employee and wife of state Sen. Hillman Frazier, a Jackson Democrat. “The wall of secrecy needs to be really broken down.”

The board, though, shows little desire to share power over presidential selections. And trustee President C.D. Smith of Meridian reiterated the board’s belief that “absolute secrecy” is a key part of the process. Smith sent out a statement accusing campus advisers of breaking signed confidentiality pledges, which promise to not reveal information about any candidate and to not make any public comments about the search.

“To the extent that some of the members of the Jackson State University advisory committee believe that they are entitled to direct the board as to which candidate would be selected as the preferred candidate, they are mistaken,” Smith said, adding no one could “dictate” to trustees.

The search also again displayed the distrust that alumni of the three historically black universities have for trustees.

Alumni of all eight universities would prefer a fellow graduate serve as their alma mater’s leader. But that desire seems more intense among alumni of the three historically black institutions, with the expectation that only a graduate would defy trustees to defend their school against possible depredations.

Multiple people accused trustees of transferring Bynum as part of an effort to revive proposals to merge JSU, Valley and Alcorn State University. And it doesn’t help the situation that none of the 12 trustees are alumni of the three universities.

Trustees are likely to discuss changes to presidential searches at their annual September retreat. And that will be none too soon, because now they must find a new leader for Valley.

Jeff Amy has covered politics and government for The Associated Press in Mississippi since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jeffamy.