Mississippi higher education is in a state of flux.
Half of the university presidents, a third of the board that oversees them, and the Commissioner of Higher Education have all transitioned out of their roles during the past year.
The first transition began in May 2017, when William B. Bynum was named president of Jackson State University, despite fierce opposition from students and alumni. Bynum was serving as president of Mississippi Valley State University when he was chosen to lead JSU.
His removal left an opening for MSVU president, which Jerryl Briggs, former executive vice president and chief operating officer at the university, was chosen to fill.
In January — three months after Briggs’ appointment — Jim Borsig, former president of the Mississippi University for Women announced his retirement.
Then in February, Glenn Boyce, the former Commissioner of Higher Education, gave notice that he too would be retiring.
Nora Miller was selected to serve as interim president of MUW in March. She has served on the W staff since 2001, and currently works as Senior Vice President for Administration and Chief Financial Officer for the university.
The day after her appointment, Alcorn State University President Al Rankins was named Commissioner of Higher Education. An interim president has not yet been chosen for Alcorn.
Though change in leadership is inevitable and expected, so too is the lack of stability that arises whenever that transition occurs.
“I think that if you’re changing characters all the time then I think you lose your continuity … not that the chancellor is or the president is the key person, but it sort of symbolically represents the stability and continuity of a university.
“So I think with the mix that’s going on, it means that he or she has to be at their very best all the time, and know which objective and which goal and which measures your community, your university embraces,” said Robert Khayat, who was the chancellor at the University of Mississippi from 1994 to 2009.
All of this is happening during a year that the term limits were up for four of the 12 member Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL). The new trustees, who were selected by Gov. Phil Bryant, will be seated at the board’s May meeting.
Their installment to the board signals the first time in state history that all 12 members of the IHL have been appointed by a single sitting governor.
Why that matters
The connection between Mississippi’s progress — both economically and socially — and the viability of its higher learning institutions have long been recognized by some, but unrealized by most.
“I think that we have not realized that higher education has been an important element in getting us where we are. Our schools are not what they ought to be, but higher education is working to provide the teachers and the administrators to help it be even better.
“Business and industry, are not growing as fast as we all would like for them to, but usually if you see a business and industry coming in, it will probably have a relationship with one of the universities,” said Aubrey Lucas, who served as president of Delta State University from 1971 to 1975 and president of the University of Southern Mississippi from 1975 to 1996.
When businesses are considering whether to come to a state, an aspect typically evaluated is what percentage of that state’s population have a college degree. Universities allow industries to use their research equipment for testing. Higher learning institutions are routinely seen as hubs where the answers to social problems can be searched for and pursued. The reach of a university’s impact on a state, theoretically, knows no bounds.
It’s up to the IHL Board of Trustees to oversee the implementation of that impact. It approves decisions as small as changing the name of a university program to as significant as constructing a multi-million dollar hospital. It also sees that each university receive equitable funding — both by lobbying for such from the legislature and by allocating those funds.
“You fight for all the reasons why Ole Miss and Mississippi State are growing and have national responsibilities and regional responsibilities, so you fight for them having their resources, which is obviously at a different competitive level. But you can battle just as hard for the Delta States and the Ws and the Valleys of the world for our regional impact and what they mean to the state of Mississippi,” said Boyce in a recent interview with Mississippi Today.
Aside from these responsibilities, the board is also tasked with appointing new presidents to each of the universities — something Boyce sees as its most important functions.
“There’s nothing more important that the board does than selecting the right president to guide and lead the university. That is right up there with governance. To find top talent, to convince top talent to come to the state, to get a pool together of top talent so you have folks that you can consider for positions and to ensure that that individual, whoever they may be, he or she, understand Mississippi, understands the culture of the state, understands the culture of the community where they’re about to live and understands the university they’re about to lead and truly has a type of vision … those are major responsibilities,” Boyce said.
This combination of vital, complex responsibilities that IHL board members are tasked with carrying out, along with a sordid history of higher education in Mississippi, has created skepticism in some about any one governor having the power to appoint all 12 board members.
Before 2003, board members served for 12 years terms, meaning there was always a mix of trustees who were appointed by different governors. That year, the length of the term limit was put to a vote. The people of Mississippi decided the term limits should be changed to nine years, and a constitutional amendment was adopted to allow for such as a result.
“Generally speaking, the people who were promoting a change felt like 12 years was too long. I don’t think that the effort was led by anybody who was thinking about being governor and saying, ‘OK I get to pick all the IHL people.’ That didn’t have anything to do with it,” said Ronnie Musgrove, who was governor when the change occurred.
Under the new rule, trustees would still be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. Nevertheless, a change in power — perhaps unwittingly — had been voted into the constitution.
Some, such as Lucas, know well the potential of this power.
“I think that no one governor should appoint a majority of the members of the Board of Trustees, but the people of the state didn’t agree with me on that. Of course, I’m not sure they really knew what would happen when they shortened those terms,” said Lucas. “But at least with this governor, we’ve not had that kind of decision making. Now, I think that we would say that the people who he appointed were probably his supporters. I don’t know that, but I would think that would be the case.
“He’s just not a good one to point to as an example of having a governor appoint a majority of the board because I see nothing that would indicate that he has tried to balance the board in one direction.”
Lucas said he thinks Bryant has made exemplary appointments to the IHL Board. He also said he’s lived through times when politicians have tried to interfere with higher education.
“By and large, our board has been able to stand up to that,” Lucas said. “We really have one of the best systems for governing higher education in the United States, but we weakened it when we shortened those terms because we made it possible — I am not saying that it has occurred — but we made it possible for one person to unduly influence higher education.”