Students, faculty and staff made it clear at the listening session that the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees held on Jackson State University’s campus Wednesday: Hire a permanent president whose tenure won’t end in resignation like the last three.
And though nobody spoke former president Thomas Hudson’s name, his resignation — for which the board still has not provided a detailed explanation — cast a shadow over the listening sessions, with many community members accusing the board of not doing its due diligence in his hiring.
Only one person mentioned he’d like to see Elayne Hayes-Anthony, JSU’s temporary acting president, elevated to a permanent spot, though trustees did ask speakers not to name potential candidates as the board isn’t yet at that point in the search.
Steven Cunningham, the trustee who is leading the search and the only JSU alumnus on the board, emphasized that he wants to hire a good president too.
“I’m not just here as an arbitrary member of the board,” he said during the student session. “This place means a lot to me.”
The board plans to do a national search. The listening sessions, which trustees will use to write a candidate profile, are the first step in that process. There’s also a survey on IHL’s website that will remain open until midnight on April 26.
Faculty and staff
The first listening session began on a low note. Etta Morgan, an associate professor in the criminal justice and sociology department, kicked it off: Morale among faculty is at an “all-time low” she said, even under the temporary administration.
“We are losing extremely good people,” she said. “Students have gotten to the point where they’re cursing you out in the classroom. You write them up, nothing gets done … It’s like we’re being destroyed from the inside out.”
It’s not just faculty at JSU who are turning over, speakers noted — so are the presidents. But not everyone at the faculty and staff session seemed to agree that presidential turnover has necessarily meant bad leadership. When Robert Luckett, the director of the Margaret Walker Center suggested that was the case, there was vocal disagreement from the audience.
“This is a level of instability that is deeply problematic for this institution.” Luckett said, adding that he had experienced “disastrous leadership” during his time at JSU.
“I wouldn’t say that,” an audience member said. “That’s your opinion!”
The next president needs to understand JSU is a special place in Mississippi, many faculty told trustees. Others said they felt like JSU no longer has the magic it once did.
LaKeisha Crye, an instructor and 2004 graduate, teared up as she told trustees that she didn’t want to send her daughters to JSU. Even though faculty receive a tuition discount, and JSU has programs that her kids are interested in, Crye said she would spend more money at university with a safer campus.
Concerns about safety at JSU have become more frequent since the fall, when news made the rounds that a student was shot and killed on campus.
At times, faculty and staff chastised the board members. During a lull in speakers, Cunningham tried to encourage more people to go to the mic because the next president would “potentially be here for 15-20 years.”
Latoya Reed, a director in the division of student affairs, said if faculty and staff weren’t talking, it was likely due to exhaustion and frustration with the board and its processes, not fear.
“I would like to charge the board first and foremost to not let this be routine, not let this be an average run of show,” she said.
Sophia Leggett, a faculty member who said she knew Cunningham when he was a student, called out IHL Commissioner Al Rankins.
“Be sincere, be intentional,” she said. “It’s time out for games.”
Multiple students talked about issues they’d like to see the next president improve, like campus safety, transparency from administration, and the ailing state of the buildings. There’s mold across campus, students reported, tiles are falling off the wall in one classroom, and only two working stalls in liberal arts building bathroom.
“It’s been broken for a couple months now, and it still hasn’t been repaired, even if you scan the QR code and ask for repairs,” said Christi Madison Fortson, a senior psychology major.
Fortson also touched on a topic many students dodged, garnering some chuckles from the audience.
“In regards to the president,” she said, “I was hoping for some possibility of an extensive background check, just to make sure we get a president of the right mindset.”
The next administration needs to be more stable, many students said. Some noted they had experienced two, even three, presidents in their time at JSU. They said if the president sets the right tone, then their professors will be more inclined to stay longer.
Another big theme is students want a president who understands the culture of HBCUs.
Elijah Karriem, a senior and the secretary of JSU’s NAACP chapter, noted that during the town halls — a fixture of student life during the water crises over the last few years — it felt like Hudson’s administration was responding with prepared statements.
“We’re all humans,” he said. “Don’t read off the paper.”
Alumni and community
The alumni session was the longest and most critical of trustees.
Carrine Bishop, a faculty member whose family has deep roots at JSU, put it the most bluntly: “Stop hiring your friends,” she said to claps. “ We need to vet every individual.”
Several alumni warily asked the board to include them in the search process. Some referenced the 2017 search when IHL hired Bynum even though he did not receive a favorable review from the search committee.
“The only thing that we really ask is you give us a slate of candidates, not put someone in front of us and tell us that’s who is going to lead our university,” said Patrease Edwards, the president of the alumni association.
Many alumni said they felt the board, and its presidents, have held JSU back from its true potential. Sen. Hillman Frazier, a Democrat who represents parts of Jackson, said lawmakers cite JSU’s turbulent leadership as reasons not to provide more funding to the university.
The president of the neighborhood association near JSU said that he grew up seeing his neighbors sharecrop to afford to send their kids to JSU, but it doesn’t seem like IHL gives back to them. He cited the dilapidated buildings that surround campus.
“My problem is this, the gatekeepers of this university will not allow the community to come in,” he said.
Donna Antoine-LaVigne, an alumnus, said she was tired of hearing news about scandals on the ninth floor, but that she wanted people to know that JSU was more than its president.
“The man or the woman does not make Jackson State,” she said. “Jackson state is Jackson State. It has a history in this community. It has done things for Black folk that nobody has thought about doing or has done.”
She called on Cunningham and Rankins to hire a president with vision.
“We have Black leadership with the board now — exercise it,” she said. “I’m not saying do anything special. Just do the right thing.”