Shelton Pittman uses a whiteboard to deconstruct his thoughts on IHL's presidential search process on Oct. 9 while trustees are in executive session. Credit: Molly Minta/Mississippi Today

William Brown and Millard Bingham, standing with their arms crossed, are waiting in a hallway of classrooms for the executive session to end, hoping it’ll bring some information about who is going to be the next president of Jackson State University. 

But Brown and Bingham know it probably won’t. At least not today.  

The two professors have waited many times before. In their two decades of teaching at Jackson State, they’ve seen four permanent presidents come and go from the historically Black university. And each time, they’ve watched as the search process used by the university’s governing board, the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees, has become more and more secretive — to the point that now, transparency “just seems like an unattainable dream,” Bingham said. 

“It feels like the fix is in, to be honest with you,” he added.

“Well, I can tell you that God is not pleased,” Brown stated. “It’s sort of like we’re in the dark ages.” 

One thing is certain: Acting president Elayne Hayes-Anthony is not a finalist for the position, she confirmed to Mississippi Today. 

Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) board member Steven Cunningham, during a board meeting held at IHL headquarters, Thursday, May 18, 2023. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

About an hour earlier, at 8:30 a.m., with two sharp bursts of a gavel, Steven Cunningham, the only Jackson State alumnus on the IHL board and the trustee chairing the search, brought the special-called meeting to order in a small conference room packed with people at the University of Mississippi’s School of Pharmacy, a few miles away from the board’s usual meeting place. 

Sitting at the table with Cunningham were two other trustees, the commissioner and William Kibler, a consultant for Academic Search, the executive headhunting firm that IHL had contracted, who had a white binder closed in front of him. 

“Thank you trustees for taking the time to participate in this very important meeting,” Cunningham said, reading a printed statement. 

Then he made a motion for executive session, which passed. 

“If you’re not an IHL trustee, you’re welcome to wait in the lobby or in one of the classrooms in the adjacent hallway,” Cunningham read. 

With that, about 15 members of the public were shepherded from the room as seven security guards watched. Uncomfortable with the guards, some people left. 

Behind them, Glynn Babb, an emergency and safety officer for IHL, and a UMMC security guard shut the conference room door and, for good measure, automatically locked the double-doors that lead to the hallway, the windows taped-up with paper. 

“So they don’t get pictures of them coming in and out,” Babb told the guard before requesting members of the public to move away from the doors.  

“It’s the secrecy,” he tells a reporter. “Not really protection.” 

“Glynn’s not authorized,” interjected Kim Gallaspy, a spokesperson for IHL.

A few feet away, Dawn McLin, a Jackson State professor and the faculty senate president, stood off to the side. She had come hoping to ask Cunningham and the IHL commissioner, Al Rankins, a few questions. Namely, she wanted to know why they had not responded to her repeated emails asking for basic information about the presidential search, such as a rough timeline, which she did not see until Mississippi Today published it

Even though she was a member of IHL’s search advisory committee, IHL had not provided McLin with any notable information about the search. 

But they had asked her and other advisory committee members not to talk to the media. 

“They said we should all be speaking in one voice, but it’s concerning when that one voice isn’t giving all of us information about the search process,” she said.  

Dawn McLin, the faculty senate president at Jackson State, reads a passage from a book about corporate management called “Absolute Honesty” at an IHL board outside closed doors where JSU presidential finalists were interviewed Oct. 10, 2023. Credit: Molly Minta/ Mississippi Today

If there were one thing she could tell IHL, McLin said, it would be in line with the title of a book about corporate management called “Absolute Honesty” that, if given the opportunity to comment, she had planned to read. 

She had also hoped to express her support for Hayes-Anthony.

“This feels like we have a pilot that you all put on this seat to fly this plane and now halfway to our destination you’ve told this pilot to eject,” she said. “What measures are you putting in place for those on the plane to keep us from crashing? You’re getting some stability but it’s like everyone has to hold their breath. You know you can’t hold your breath waiting forever.” 

Without more transparency, McLin said she feels like IHL is setting up the next president of Jackson State for failure. She doesn’t want a repeat of William Bynum Jr., whom IHL appointed president even though he was not initially a finalist, or Thomas Hudson, who resigned for reasons that still have not been shared with the public. Bynum, who was hired from Mississippi Valley State University, resigned in 2020 after he was arrested in a prostitution sting.

“Their past appointments have shown you their results,” she said. “The proof is in the pudding.”

Other attendees were just as disappointed. Monica Wilson, a Jackson State graduate, thought she’d pop over to the meeting — but she was quickly disabused of that notion. 

“My surprise was it was such a small room,” she said. “I’m not even in the room. I’m at the door looking in. That told me this is not going to be for the public.” 

By the time Nike Irving and her husband, Shelton Pittman, had arrived at the meeting around 8:45 a.m., the trustees were already in executive session. They had rushed over after dropping their son off at school. But when they arrived, security guards directed them to a classroom down the hall. Irving, who has a master’s degree from Jackson State, expected one of the TVs to turn on with a broadcast of the meeting. 

But it never did. 

“I just want to know what they plan to do for the university,” Irving said. 

On a whiteboard, Pittman, a military veteran who graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi, wrote out his thoughts on IHL’s search process, which he referred to as “foolishness.” 

“At this particular moment,” Pittman said, “I don’t think IHL nor the kids and young adults can withstand—” 

“Another person quitting on them,” Irving concluded. 

When they left, the doors to the School of Pharmacy building locked behind them.

Five-and-half hours after closing the doors, trustees emerged. Cunningham said they took no action.

Cunningham couldn’t say if every finalist has a doctoral degree — which the search profile stated was preferred but not required — and wouldn’t say how many finalist there were. He added that he didn’t know how the community was coming up with rumors.

“Nature abhors a vacuum,” he said.

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Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today. She works in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit news organization focused on investigating higher education. Originally from Melbourne Beach, Florida, Molly reported on public housing and prosecutors in her home state and worked as a fact-checker at The Nation before joining Mississippi Today. Her story on Mississippi's only class on critical race theory was a finalist for the Education Writers Association National Awards for Education Reporting in 2023 in the feature reporting category.