Last October, Dr. Rod Paige returned to Jackson State University for the Boombox Classic versus Southern University. Before the football game, he strolled down the university’s Gibbs-Green Plaza, a walk he had not taken since 1955 when he graduated from Jackson College, as the school was known then.
He described it as beautiful, populated with active students and engaging faculty — a “heavenly place to be.”
“Taking the chance to walk across the campus a week before, that inspired me. Had I not, I wouldn’t have joined the conversation or taken the opportunity to become interim president of this university,” says Paige.
Events leading to Paige’s selection to lead the university were far less pleasant.
Last October, the Institutes of Higher Learning board of trustees reported Jackson State’s cash reserves declined from $37 million to $4 million over the past four years. The board hired Matthews, Cutrer and Lindsay, an accounting analytics firm, to assess the university’s finances between fiscal year 2012 and fiscal year 2016.
Less than a week later, Carolyn Meyers announced her resignation as university president. Paige took over as interim president on Nov. 7.
Paige doesn’t expect the financial issues to be resolved during his time at the university, but he is beginning the process for the next president, who he expects will be in office by July 1. Final submissions for nominations for the presidential search committee are due Jan. 17.
Two solutions Paige is pursuing now: reduce spending and raise funds to rebuild reserves without damaging the university. Increasing enrollment and adding money-generating activities at Mississippi Memorial Stadium are additional options to help reverse the deficit, Paige says.
Paige, 83, is a Monticello native and Navy veteran who coached Jackson State’s football team in the 1960s. He left Mississippi to earn advanced degrees from Indiana University and continued coaching college football at other universities. Paige then took an administrative turn and headed the department of education at Texas Southern University in Houston.
In the mid-1990s, he was superintendent of the Houston independent school district. When George W. Bush was elected president, Paige served as U.S. secretary of education.
“Dr. Paige has considerable experience managing large, complex organizations and will bring these skills to bear for the benefit of Jackson State, his alma mater,” Dr. Glenn Boyce, commissioner of higher education, said in a press release after the announcement of Paige’s hiring.
“The state reduced its funding to all colleges,” Paige says. “That wouldn’t be a problem if we could go to the savings and compensate for the deficit.”
Jackson State “didn’t have a rainy day fund to go to, and rainy days came,” says Paige.
During the past few weeks, many community leaders, lawmakers, alumni and students have gathered at the round table in the president’s office which overlooks the entire campus. From those meetings, Paige gathers that the university has potential to expand its support base because people are seeing the impact that the institution has on the city and the state.
“Graduates are very successful in their endeavors. Jackson State is a launch pad for success for students,” says Paige.
“I learned so much (as an undergraduate at Jackson State). Coming from the rural town of Monticello, you didn’t get a lot of outside information. I didn’t know much about the world.”
“JSU is historically a school for African Americans, but we are open to the world now. The ethnic membership is much more open. The system is much different than when I was a student,” Paige explains.
As secretary of education, Paige visited many universities in the nation and abroad. But there was a unique feeling about JSU, he says.
“I had a feeling that this place was special and should be among the leaders in the U.S. in terms of educating people.”
For Commissioner Boyce, Paige’s contributions to Jackson State will go far beyond good management: “His story is a shining example of what Jackson State means to its students and can do for its students. He will focus on ensuring the students receive an excellent education that will launch them into successful lives and careers.”