William Bynum Jr.’s lawsuit against Jackson State University and the Institutions of Higher Learning is still open more than three years after the former university president, who had been arrested in a prostitution sting, resigned his post.
The lawsuit, delayed in Hinds County Circuit Court, has dragged on long enough to see Bynum’s replacement, Thomas Hudson, tender his own resignation. Hudson is the third consecutive Jackson State president to resign, but unlike his predecessors, the public has not been told why Hudson stepped down.
In a March 2020 complaint, Bynum alleged that a provision in his contract assured that he could stay at Jackson State as “a full professor, and with tenure,” in the College of Education with a salary 110% that of the highest-paid faculty member. But Jackson State and IHL “failed or refused to permit” that to happen, his initial complaint alleges.
A month after Bynum filed suit, Jackson State terminated him as full professor. Jackson State and IHL have countered that Bynum was an at-will employee who had never been granted tenure at Jackson State.
A message left for the Winfield Law Firm, which is representing Jackson State and IHL, was not returned. Bynum’s lawyer Dennis Sweet III, said he intends to keep pursuing the case.
“If you look at the contract, we win,” Sweet said. “It’s not even a contest.”
The lawsuit provides a look into how IHL resolves the resignations of its presidents, a process that is typically hidden from the public view due to an exemption for “personnel records” from the state’s public records law.
For instance, IHL recently denied Mississippi Today’s records request for Hudson’s resignation letter, citing the exemption. The board could release these documents with Hudson’s permission, but a board spokesperson said that has not been granted. It’s unclear if the board asked for it.
Bynum was appointed Jackson State’s president in the summer of 2017 after serving as president of Mississippi Valley State University for about four years. He was not a popular pick. Members of a search committee that had been tasked with interviewing candidates did not invite Bynum back for a second interview. The board’s announcement of his selection inspired several Black lawmakers to file a lawsuit to prevent his appointment.
But Bynum became Jackson State’s president anyway. He was paid a $300,000 annual salary from the state of Mississippi, plus an annual $75,000 bonus from the JSU foundation. He was also appointed full professor – a perk all university presidents in Mississippi get – with the possibility of receiving tenure after five years as president, according to IHL board policy.
Bynum’s lawsuit alleges that perk was supposed to outlast his employment as Jackson State president. A clause attached to Bynum’s contract read: “In the event the Employee resigns or is terminated as President of Jackson State University, but remains employed with the institutions as a professor, Employee’s salary as a full professor shall be 110% of the highest faculty salary on the Jackson campus of Jackson State University.”
The clause also noted that “the Board will consider an application for tenure as a full professor in the Department of Education, Human Development, and Humane Letters in the College of Education at Jackson State University.”
After Bynum resigned following his arrest in February 2020, he sent an email on Feb. 14 to IHL Commissioner Alfred Rankins and the IHL board members notifying them of his intent to remain at JSU as a faculty member, according to the lawsuit. Bynum noted that he had served as a university president for a total of 6.5 years, most of that at MVSU.
On Feb. 18, 2020, Sweet followed up with a letter to Rankins.
“While it is understandable that you might wish Dr. Bynum to refrain from being physically present on the JSU campus until his pending legal issues are resolved, he may still serve JSU in other capacities while not physically present on campus,” he wrote.
Sweet suggested that Bynum could teach classes virtually or at the off-campus e-Center. Or Bynum could help staff dissertation committees for the College of Education, which Sweet claimed lacked faculty qualified for that task.
Sweet added that should IHL “fail to honor” Bynum’s contract, he believed Bynum was entitled to damages due in part to his health issues.
“In my many years of practice, this is without a doubt a case warranting punitive damages,” Sweet wrote, “especially considering the IHL’s poorly written and contradictory policies.”
Any email reply from Rankins or IHL was not included in Bynum’s exhibits in the lawsuit. But in joint court filings, Jackson State and IHL have alleged that as government entities, they can’t be sued for a contractual breach under the Mississippi Tort Claims Act. They further argue that Jackson State can’t be sued because it was not party to Bynum’s contract.
Near the end of 2021, Bynum asked the court to rule in his favor without trial. Jackson State and IHL, in a Nov. 23 motion asking the court to dismiss the suit, argue that Bynum has no evidence of receiving tenure or being entitled to it.
“Despite his voluntary resignation from the position for which he was hired (president of JSU), Bynum now complains of his termination from a position (professor) for which he had no contractual or other right,” Jackson State and IHL argue. “Bynum’s claims all miss the mark.”
A judge has yet to rule on the motions, and the case is scheduled for a docket call on March 29.