The Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees named Marcus Thompson, a deputy commissioner, the 13th president of Jackson State University. He will start on Nov. 27.
Thompson, who has worked at IHL since 2009, has no experience leading a university, and his appointment is reminiscent of IHL’s decision to hire Glenn Boyce to head the University of Mississippi, even though Boyce lead IHL’s search for that university. Both decisions eschewed search candidates in favor of an internal hire.
Thompson would not say if he had applied for the job, but he did complete an interview.
“That’s a hiring issue for the board,” Thompson told Mississippi Today. “I don’t really feel comfortable talking about the internal process.”
There’s much at stake with this hire: Thompson will be watched closely by a university community that doesn’t want this presidency to end in resignation like the last three. The decision comes about a month after IHL was scheduled to make this hire and was made during executive session at the board’s regular meeting Thursday.
“I don’t even think of this in terms of the title of ‘president,’” Thompson said. “In my heart, it’s about being a servant leader for all of our stakeholders.”
Trustee Steven Cunningham, the only Jackson State alumnus on the board and the chair of the presidential search, did not attend the meeting in person to take questions from the media. He did not answer a call from Mississippi Today.
“The Board selected a leader who knows the unique historic importance of the university who will articulate a bold vision for the future and will be indefatigable in the pursuit of excellence for Jackson State University,” Cunningham said in IHL’s press release.
The leadership turnover at Jackson State, the largest historically Black university in Mississippi, has also affected progress on key issues that have hurt enrollment, like campus security, housing shortages and an aging water system. Other ambitious goals, like a new football stadium, have fallen to the wayside.
“One of the things I’ve gained over the years is a lot of knowledge of all the working areas of the university,” he said. “Because of my work, I know about the institutions. I’ve worked with a lot of state officials, legislators. There were already a lot of good relationships there.”
That means Thomspon will have to hit the ground running for the legislative session.
“Marcus Thompson has a deep understanding of the vital role HBCUs play in higher education,” Sen. Sollie Norwood said in IHL’s press release. “His proven leadership will serve him well in taking Jackson State University to new heights.”
Thompson will also need to work to increase trust between IHL, administration and stakeholders like faculty and staff who supported Temporary Acting President Elayne Hayes-Anthony and criticized the presidential search process as lacking transparency.
“Obviously, I’ll spend a lot of time listening to all of the stakeholders on campus,” Thompson said.
Though Jackson State’s financial position has largely recovered from Carolyn Meyers’ tenure, Thompson is also facing concerns that have been raised this year about possible misspending of restricted dollars by the cash-strapped Jackson State Development Foundation.
“Stop hiring your friends,” said Carrine Bishop, a faculty member whose family has deep roots at JSU. “ We need to vet every individual.”
Thompson earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and Spanish and a Master’s degree in Education from Mississippi College. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Jackson State University in urban higher education.
IHL made the decision during the executive session at Thursday’s board meeting, the last meeting of the year. Trustees were increasingly under pressure to choose a president to lead the historically Black college in Mississippi’s capital city.
“We definitely need to make a decision,” the current board president, gastroenterologist Alfred McNair, said before executive session. “That’s the biggest thing we need to do.”
McNair added that the board was aware of the community’s feeling that Jackson State could have avoided the past three resignations if IHL had done a better job of looking into candidates’ backgrounds.
“We’re doing our best job to get all the information we can as far as background checks,” McNair said, shaking his head. “We’re doing the best job we can to make sure we choose the right person. We’ve taken a long time – longer than usual – because we’re really trying to make sure we cover all areas A to Z.”
Jason Johnson, the Jackson State student body president, said his biggest question is what will the university’s next permanent president do to address campus security in the wake of an unsolved shooting that killed one student leader in an on-campus apartment complex.
If he had the chance, Johnson said he would have asked candidates “what are your intentions as far as student public safety?”
Johnson added it was important to him that Jackson State’s new president have experience in higher education.
After the meeting, most trustees refused to take questions. Alfred Rankins, the IHL commissioner, escorted trustee Jeanne Luckey in her wheelchair through a gaggle of TV reporters, repeatedly saying “no comment” before going into a sideroom.
McNair also said “no comment.”