The board of trustees of the Institutions of Higher Learning is scrambling to hold a special emergency meeting this Friday to consider several university agenda items — a meeting that wouldn’t be necessary had Gov. Tate Reeves made four new college board appointments on time.
The Friday meeting, scheduled for the same day the terms of four trustees are set to expire, was called while the 12-person board will still have enough members tovote on certain finance items. The board is expected to consider five items on Friday that one of the trustees, due to a potential conflict of interest, is likely to recuse themselves from voting on, sources close to the IHL board told Mississippi Today.
The items in question were initially on the agenda for the board’s upcoming regular meeting on May 20. But since Reeves, who is responsible for naming trustees, did not make his appointments in time for the mandated Senate confirmation hearings during the 2021 legislative session, the board may only have eight members at that meeting — exactly enough for a quorum. The anticipated recusal would render the board without a quorum and unable to legally vote on the items.
Reeves has not said when he might fill the four empty seats. Without the governor’s appointments, not only will the IHL board be unable to vote on any issue where a trustee must recuse themselves, but it will also be unable to hold a meeting in the event a member is absent.
This could affect the day-to-day operations of the state’s eight public universities, which the IHL board is tasked with overseeing. Trustees’ votes affect nearly every aspect of higher education in Mississippi, from approving new degree programs and granting tenure to how much tuition will cost and the medical equipment the University of Mississippi Medical Center can buy.
Because college board trustees are typically politically connected lawyers, doctors or businesspeople, recusals are a regular occurrence. Trustees have recused themselves from voting at 10 out of the 13 meetings held since May 2020 — a total of 46agenda items, according to an analysis of IHL meeting minutes. The majority of those recusals come from attorney Gee Ogletree, who was appointed by former Republican Gov. Phil Bryant in 2018, and Alfred McNair, another Bryant appointee who has been on the board since 2015.
Ogletree, a partner at a law firm that represents a wide variety of industry clients, has recused himself 36 times since May 2020, often on items pertaining to requests from UMMC to acquire various medical equipment, such as lab tools used to identify the coronavirus and sleeves that prevent the formation of blood clots. Ogletree’s term expires in May 2027.
McNair, a gastroenterologist, has recused himself five times since May 2020. McNair’s term expires May 2024.
Since Reevesdid not make appointments during the 2021 legislative session, it’s also unclear if he can make appointments without calling a special session of the Mississippi Senate. The state Constitution mandates that appointments be confirmed by the Senate.
Since his time as lieutenant governor, Reeves has a history of slow-walking and missing deadlines for important appointments. In addition to the delayed appointments to the college board, Reeves currently owes two appointments to the Mississippi Board of Education, which oversees the state’s K-12 public schools. That board currently has five members, constituting exactly enough for a quorum. The board of education had to cancel a November 2020 meeting because it lacked quorum.
In 2020, Reeves didn’t name people to the board to redesign the state flag until a week after the deadline set by the Legislature. That deadline was clearly spelled out in the bill Reeves signed into law himself.
And in 2017, some blamed the state’s late start on its bicentennial celebration — it didn’t fully roll out until near the end of the state’s 200th year — in part because Reeves didn’t appoint people to long-vacant slots on the Bicentennial Commission until late that year.
Reeves and several of his staffers have ignored questions from Mississippi Today reporters about when he will name appointments and why he hasn’t yet. Though Reeves does not often comment on appointments, he offered insight into his decision-making process for appointments during the 2019 governor’s race. After the 2019 University of Mississippi chancellor controversy came up during the first gubernatorial debate, Mississippi Today asked both Reeves and his Democratic opponent Jim Hood how they would decide who to appoint to the IHL board.
“The governor’s appointment power is one of the most important reasons why Mississippians should elect Tate Reeves and defeat Jim Hood,” the Reeves campaign said in a statement at the time. “It goes all the way to the top. Both our U.S. senators were appointed, and that makes a big difference in who sits on the U.S. Supreme Court. Jim Hood would make appointments that Nancy Pelosi will love but Donald Trump will hate. Tate will appoint conservatives and Hood will appoint liberals.”
Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.