IHL board members during the public portion of their meeting at IHL headquarters, Thursday, May 18, 2023 in Jackson. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

The same day the governing board of Mississippi’s public universities appointed one of its own to lead Jackson State University, a lawsuit filed in federal court by a former female vice president alleges she was discriminated against when Thomas Hudson was elevated to the position in 2020. 

When the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees picked Hudson to lead the state’s largest historically Black university, the lawsuit alleges it discriminated against Debra Mays-Jackson, who at the time had been the school’s vice president and chief of staff since 2017. The lawsuit claims she had supervised Hudson, a special assistant to the president. 

IHL appointed Hudson interim president in early 2020 when William Bynum Jr., the university’s 11th president, resigned after he was arrested for procuring the services of a prostitute. Then IHL cut the search short that November to hire Hudson permanently despite promising, the lawsuit says, it would look for national candidates. 

Thomas Hudson Credit: Jackson State University

Had IHL conducted a full search and vetted Hudson, the lawsuit alleges, the board would have known at the time that he had sent “unwelcomed and uninvited photographs of his genitalia” to a JSU student and employee and that he had “demoted another JSU employee who complained about Hudson’s unlawful conduct.” 

“Upon information and belief, before naming Hudson President of JSU, Rankins and other IHL officials knew or should have known Hudson had engaged in conduct unbecoming a college president,” the complaint states.

Three years later, Hudson became Jackson State’s third permanent president in a row to resign after he was placed on administrative leave by IHL for reasons that still have not been made public. 

IHL did not respond to questions from Mississippi Today, and Hudson did not return a call by press time. A Jackson State spokesperson wrote the university had no comment on the litigation.

The lawsuit names 11 current and former IHL board members, and the commissioner, Alfred Rankins. It asks a jury to award damages and make Mays-Jackson the new president of Jackson State. 

On Thursday, IHL named Marcus Thompson, a deputy commissioner, the new president. He is slated to start Nov. 27. Thompson did not return a call from Mississippi Today by press time.

Thompson’s appointment was applauded by many on social media, including Hudson. 

“Extending a very personal and sincere Congratulations to Marcus Thompson on being named 13th President of @JacksonStateU,” Hudson wrote. “As a proud alumnus I am proud to stand in support as you work for the betterment of my Dear Old College Home.” 

After Hudson resigned, IHL allegedly planned to make Thompson the president earlier this year until, the lawsuit states, Elayne Hayes-Anthony “garnered more support … during the executive session to discuss the matter.” She became the temporary acting president.

Before Hudson was a special assistant to the president, he had been the university’s chief operating/diversity officer and Title IX coordinator, according to an IHL press release about his appointment. The lawsuit alleges he did not supervise any employees in his capacity as diversity officer. 

Credit: Courtesy of JSU

As vice president, Mays-Jackson oversaw several key areas at the university, including enrollment management, student affairs and governmental relations, according to a post about her on Jackson State’s website. She had also served as vice president of Hinds Community College’s Utica and Vicksburg campuses. 

It is unclear if Mays-Jackson ever got a chance to apply for the job. 

On Feb. 10, 2020, the day Hudson was appointed interim president, the lawsuit alleges that he approached Mays-Jackson and told her “he was not qualified or prepared to serve as interim president” and gave her a $25,000 bonus so she would stay on board. 

Three days later, Rankins met with Jackson State employees and told them that Hudson would not be permitted to apply for the position, the lawsuit states, claiming a national search would be conducted.

That was cut short after multiple speakers said they wanted Hudson to become permanent president after IHL conducted a virtual listening session in late October 2020. The lawsuit alleges that was the product of a campaign by Hudson for the job. 

According to the lawsuit, IHL also already knew that Hudson, as diversity officer, and other Jackson State officials had “concealed complaints of sex discrimination and sexual harassment that female employees suffered at the hands of a male dean.” The female employees filed an anonymous complaint with IHL after Hudson allegedly failed to investigate the allegations. 

After IHL apparently launched its own investigation, the lawsuit states the dean retired. 

Mays-Jackson left Jackson State in August 2021, according to her LinkedIn.

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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.