Jackson State University alumni and supporters filed a broad lawsuit Tuesday against the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees for racial discrimination in its governance of the historically black colleges and universities and its presidential selection processes.
The suit follows IHL’s naming of Dr. William B. Bynum, current president at Mississippi Valley State University, as the agency’s candidate of preference as JSU president.
Bynum is scheduled to appear at JSU’s student center on Wednesday for a day of listening sessions with stakeholders. At the conclusion of those sessions, the board will deliberate and announce Bynum as president of JSU or choose to continue the search.
It’s unclear whether Tuesday’s lawsuit could derail that process.
Plaintiffs filed the suit in Hinds County Chancery Court and want the board of trustees, their agents, employees, sub-alternates and successors in office be restrained from engaging in any “racially discriminatory practices with respect to education and employment opportunities in the system of higher education in the State of Mississippi.”
Almost simultaneously with the news of the lawsuit being filed, C. D. Smith, President of the Board of Trustees and the chair of the JSU president search released an open letter in which he notes: “While we understand that people may have different views as to the best candidate for JSU, we are certain that any attempt to make the selection of its next president a debated political issue is divisive, and therefore, has the potential of being harmful to the university.
“While the Board seeks advice and information from the aforementioned, the Board does not allow any person, persons, or group to dictate which candidate will be finally selected by the Board. To the extent that some of the members of the Jackson State University (JSU) 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.
“JSU, particularly at this juncture of its history, needs to become united behind whoever is selected as the next president. In the view of the Board, the experience of Dr. Will Bynum made him the most qualified preferred candidate. The Board is confident that he has the talent and experience to be an able and effective president of Jackson State University.”
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include JSU alumni, represented by Alvin Chambliss, former leading attorney in the Ayers case. The Ayers case was a decades-long federal lawsuit filed on behalf of black plaintiffs seeking to force the state to spend millions to make the historically black universities equal to the state’s historically white universities. The case resulted in a settlement in 2001 that required tthe state to spend $500 million to improve infrastructure and programming at the state’s historically black universities.
The petition states: “The selection process is flawed in that White Institutions are given more weight, lead way and their alumni, faculty and support groups are listened to while Black Institutions representatives voices are not heard.”
“There are no Black representatives from these institutions thereby violating the Spirit of the Law of Common Sense,” the petition states.
“The state furthers this illegal and immoral conduct by violating its own law of tampering with a sitting president of an institution,” the petition states. “Is this an attempt to close Mississippi (Valley) State University? Why move him unless the intent is to destroy both institutions. Is this true downsizing killing two birds with one stone?”
The plaintiffs also requests that the court order the college board to reform its policies consistent with sound education policies and practices and issue a preliminary injunction requiring the board to follow the Administrative Procedure Act and the Open Meetings Act.
The plaintiffs also request that the court require the board to stop all “back channeling” communication and declare all “secret meetings” illegal, but does not cite specific examples of either practice.
Petitioners include Dr. McKinley Alexander Jr., Schuyler Finley, Dr. Ivory Phillips, Ineza Pittman, state Rep. Kathy Sykes, Winfred Love and former legislator Jim Evans.
Former JSU president Dr. Carolyn Meyers announced her resignation in October 2016, less than a week after the Institutions of Higher Learning appointed an accounting analytics firm to assess the university’s finances. IHL trustees reported that Jackson State’s cash reserves declined from $37 million to $4 million over four years.
The board hired Ridgeland-based Matthews, Cutrer & Lindsay P.A. to assess the university’s finances between fiscal year 2012 and fiscal year 2016.
Dr. Rod Paige was named interim president of JSU in November.
Here is the schedule for the listening sessions with Dr. Bynum on Wednesday on the JSU campus:
9 a.m.: Administration, faculty and staff
10 a.m.: Students
11 a.m.: Alumni/community
1 p.m.: Board meeting
1:30 p.m.: Press conference