‘We need a leader with vision’: Inside the politically charged Ole Miss chancellor search

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The Lyceum on the University of Mississippi campus

Members of the Institutions of Higher Learning board of trustees gathered at Old Waverly, a high-end private golf club in West Point, in mid-September for their annual retreat.

The 12-member IHL board, which oversees Mississippi’s eight public universities, usually meets in Jackson to approve lease agreements, consider legal contracts and discuss professor tenure and other personnel issues.

The annual board retreat, however, is a chance for the board to reflect on the weightiest challenges facing higher education in the state. This one, held on September 19, was the heaviest in recent memory: It was the last time the board’s ten men and two women would meet before beginning an assuredly contentious interview process to name a new University of Mississippi chancellor.

Behind the closed doors of an executive session, the IHL board winnowed an applicant pool of at least 35 candidates to just eight. The board voted to extend interview invitations to those seven men and one woman, one of whom could be tapped for one of the most prominent, sought-after, highest paid and powerful positions in state government.

For nearly a year, the state’s largest and flagship university has been without a permanent chancellor, who oversees operations at the main Oxford campus and University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, the state’s only medical school. Former Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter, whom the IHL board hired in 2015, announced his resignation in November 2018. Larry Sparks, the university’s longtime vice chancellor for administration and finance, has served as interim chancellor since January.

In this vacuum, key stakeholders have waged a battle for the very soul of the university. Conservative alumni believe the university has veered too far to the left in recent years under leaders who they say have been too accommodating to “political correctness.” Still others fear the loss of academic freedom and believe there is still much work needed to reckon with the school’s history of social tumult and present-day racial conflicts that frequently thrust the school into the national spotlight.

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Wealthy alumni have pulled large donations, tensions have crescendoed over the Confederate monument on campus, and fights over matters such as campus free speech and tenure have fueled political rhetoric.

As student enrollment has dropped the past two academic years and annual donations to the endowment have dropped the past three fiscal years, prominent figureheads say the university’s alumni base is fractured. For that reason, many have said, this chancellor search is paramount to the university’s short-term and long-term success. 

“Ole Miss is the flagship university, and we’ve had a unique role to play in the history of the state — some positive, some negative. Because of the way Ole Miss’ situation evolved over the past few years, we’ve had difficulty and have not done as well as we were doing before,” Robert Khayat, who served as chancellor from 1995 to 2009, told Mississippi Today. “We need a leader with vision. We need somebody who will step up and represent education in the state. It’s a really important search. I hope our board will select the most highly qualified person for the job. I think they will.”

The process of selecting the next chancellor started long before the official interviews will commence this week. 

Over a period of several weeks, individuals close to the search outlined to Mississippi Today that search process, one that is designed to be thorough and fair but acknowledges the extreme political nature of the moment. Those sources, who were not authorized to speak with the media about the search, underscored that statute permits the search process to have some flexibility, allowing the board to deviate from publicly stated policy. 

To land on eight interview invitations, the board relied on two things: scores from the 39-member Campus Search Advisory Committee — which has become known to insiders as “the C-SAC” — and advice from consultants who had communicated with potential candidates. The search consultants included representatives from Baker Buffkin, a Tennessee-based search firm, and Glenn Boyce, a former IHL commissioner who was awarded a consulting contract by the University of Mississippi Foundation.

In June, the IHL board appointed the C-SAC, which was conceived as multiracial, intergenerational and including varying political perspectives. It also included students and faculty from the Oxford campus at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and other university constituency groups.

All C-SAC members were required to sign non-disclosure agreements, although the board’s deliberations have leaked to the news media and even shown up on social media and various alumni message boards.

In total, the C-SAC considered 32 candidates who submitted curriculum vitae and other materials.

Among those applicants were high-profile and notable current and former public officials with Republican ties, including recently retired Congressman Gregg Harper, former Congressman Chip Pickering, and businessman and potential 2020 U.S. Senate candidate Gerard Gibert.

Other high-profile applicants include Democratic former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, former state Supreme Court Justice Randy “Bubba” Pierce, and Barry Cannada, a senior partner at the state’s largest law firm, Butler Snow.

In late August and early September, C-SAC members ranked each applicant based on a scoring rubric the search firm developed. The search firm averaged the scores, which were not shared with the C-SAC or the public, and sent them to the IHL board.

None of the politicians who applied for the job were invited by the IHL board to interview. Despite little being known about the process, news spread late last week and sparked concern among alumni circles and the highest reaches of state government.

An adviser to Gov. Phil Bryant, who is a close Harper ally, told Mississippi Today the governor expressed frustration with what Bryant called a “lack of transparency” of the IHL search process in a phone call on Friday morning when he learned Harper did not receive an interview invitation from the IHL board. 

Rogelio V. Solis / Associated Press

Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.

Former Republican U.S. Sen. Trent Lott told Mississippi Today he supported Pickering for the role. Lott’s pull at the university remains strong after maintaining close relationships with university chancellors and IHL board members over the years.

“We’ve had a couple chancellor tenures that didn’t work out well,” Lott said last week, speaking of Vitter and Dan Jones, the former chancellor whose controversial ouster came in 2015 after six years in the position. “It’s a very important position for my beloved Ole Miss. We need a very strong leader who can promote a positive image of the state, one that will be able to work with the alumni and can be respected and work with the students and faculty. I have all the confidence that the IHL will do the right thing.”

Gibert, who is also vice chairman of the Mississippi Lottery Corporation and has publicly campaigned for the chancellor job, received one of the lowest C-SAC scores of any applicant, according to two people who saw the scores, and was not invited for an interview with the IHL board.

The board also declined to interview Jim Barksdale, former CEO of Netscape and a top donor to the school, after he submitted his application three weeks after the deadline, which did not allow the board time to fully review his materials, a source said. 

(Editor’s note: Jim and Donna Barksdale are Mississippi Today donors and founding board members; Donna Barksdale serves as board chairwoman.)

Separate from the advisory board process, search consultants communicated with two other Republican officeholders: Speaker Philip Gunn and state Sen. Briggs Hopson. Several people, including Republican state Sen. Lydia Chassaniol, wrote letters to IHL board members and search consultants on Hopson’s behalf. The IHL board decided against interviewing either Gunn or Hopson.

In executive session during the Sept. 19 IHL board meeting, members settled on extending interview invitations to eight candidates — five high-scoring candidates from the C-SAC applicant pool and three from the consultants’ list. 

Sources close to IHL board members and others involved in the search process note that any candidate could decline the invitation or remove themselves from the search process at any time. They also note that the IHL board has the power to add candidates to the interview list before interviews begin.

The eight people who received interview invitations after the Sept. 19 IHL board meeting are:

  • Michael Benson, president of Eastern Kentucky University since 2013
  • Kelly Damphousse, chancellor of Arkansas State University since 2017
  • Sharon Gaber, president of the University of Toledo since 2015
  • Bill Hardgrave, provost and senior vice president of academic affairs at Auburn since 2018
  • Chris Howard, president of Robert Morris University since 2016
  • Cal Mayo, founding partner of Mayo Mallette PLLC in Oxford
  • Robert Robbins, president of the University of Arizona since 2017
  • Fred Slabach, president of Texas Wesleyan University since 2011

Of the eight candidates invited to interview, seven serve in senior leadership roles at major universities. Six candidates have doctoral degrees. Two candidates, Mayo and Slabach, hold law degrees. Three candidates hold degrees from the University of Mississippi: Mayo holds a bachelor’s degree, Robbins holds a medical degree and Slabach holds a law degree from the university.

Howard, who is African American, is the only person of color on the list; Gaber is the only woman.

After the first round of interviews, the IHL board will decide which candidates to bring back for a second round of interviews, currently scheduled for the third week of October. From there, the IHL board will select a “preferred candidate,” according to the process set forth by the IHL.

“The hope is to have our preferred candidate in late October to go to the medical center and to come to (the Oxford campus) to visit with the Ole Miss family,” Ford Dye, an IHL board member and chair of the search committee, said on Sept. 5.

After the preferred candidate meets with the campus constituency groups, those groups will give their input to the IHL. From there, the board will decide if that candidate should be named chancellor. If the constituency groups oppose the preferred candidate, the IHL board can go back to the drawing board. 

If you have any information on the search process you’d like to share, on or off the record, visit our “Share Your News Tip” page here.