Gov. Tate Reeves. Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

The day after Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith’s historic win in 2018, Gregory “Gregg” Rader, a Columbus businessman and frequent Republican donor, was already thinking ahead to the next big election.

On Nov. 28, 2018, Rader wrote a $25,000 check to Tate Reeves, the frontrunner in the 2019 governor’s race. Five months later, after Reeves kicked off his campaign, Rader, an executive officer of a recycling company, dropped another donation for $10,000.

In July 2020, eight months after Reeves won the election, Rader cut Reeves yet another check for $50,000, handing the governor one of the largest one-time campaign contributions in his political career — and in a non-election year no less.

It wasn’t long before Reeves gave Rader a gift of his own.

Rader was one of the governor’s four appointees to the Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) board in May. The board, which oversees the state’s eight public universities, is one of the most coveted political appointments in Mississippi.

And Rader is in good company. All but one of Reeves’ four appointees to the IHL board are campaign donors, according to a review of Reeves’ campaign finance disclosure since 2016. Similarly, all three of Reeves’ recent selections for the Mississippi Community College Board — announced the same day as the IHL picks — are campaign donors.

Over the past five years, these six appointees and their businesses have contributed at least $155,750 to Reeves’ campaign committees, records show.

Reeves is far from the first governor to award appointments to friends, campaign donors and supporters. The practice is common and legal in Mississippi, though not free from criticism. The insider appointments not only raise ethical questions but are indicative of a system of favoritism that excludes the historically Black colleges and universities.

State Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson, said the practice of appointing donors or allies is one way the political system ensures power stays in the hands of Mississippi’s predominantly white institutions at the expense of its HBCUs.

“It’s an opportunity for the status quo to remain with respect to our colleges and universities,” Bell said.

Mississippi Today contacted all seven of the recent appointees. In response, IHL spokesperson Caron Blanton wrote in an email that, “any questions you have regarding the governor’s appointments to the Board of Trustees should be directed to the governor’s office.” Kell Smith, MCCB’s director of communications and legislative services, wrote “we are not interested in commenting.” Reeves’ office did not return a request for comment.

Only William Symmes, a Gulfport lawyer appointed by Reeves to the community college board, returned our interview request. In a phone call, Symmes acknowledged his personal connections to Reeves led to his appointment, but said it is logical the governor would pick people who know and support him.

“Obama said it best: ‘Elections have consequences,’” Symmes told Mississippi Today. “I think that one of those consequences is you’re able to put people around you that you feel comfortable and work well with.”

The IHL has enormous power in Mississippi. The 12-member board oversees a higher education system that employs over 27,000 people and educates more than 95,000 students. They have the final say over contracts worth $250,000 or more and control personnel decisions ranging from appointing university presidents to approving academic tenure.

“The IHL is almost like a fourth branch of government in our state,” said Denis Wiesenburg, the president-elect of University of Southern Mississippi’s Faculty Senate who attended many IHL meetings when he was provost of academic affairs. “You have the courts, the executive, the Legislature and then you have the IHL — it is a constitutionally established body that technically has the same standing as the other branches of government.”

Governors appointing allies or donors to the IHL board is ironic considering its history. The board was created in 1943 to protect the state’s colleges and universities from “the blight of partisan politics,” according to “Making Haste Slowly,” a book by David Sansing that chronicles the history of higher education in Mississippi. That intent is spelled out in the state Constitution: Trustees are directed to perform their duties “uninfluenced by any political considerations,” and they have the power to fire university presidents “at any time for malfeasance, inefficiency or contumacious conduct, but never for political reasons.”

Initially, trustees served staggered 12-year terms so that one governor could never appoint a majority of the board. That began to change in the 1980s, when voters approved consecutive terms for governors. Then in the early 2000s, the state of Mississippi voted to decrease the trustee terms to nine years. Former Gov. Phil Bryant became the first governor since the board was created to appoint all 12 members, many of whom were also big-time campaign donors.

The Legislature has periodically considered proposals to curtail the governor’s influence on the IHL, most recently in 2020, after Glenn Boyce was appointed chancellor of University of Mississippi over wide opposition. Two bills were introduced that year: One from Bell to eliminate the IHL and another from Rep. Trey Lamar, R-Senatobia, that would split up the appointees between the governor, the lieutenant governor and the speaker. Bell’s bill was killed by Speaker Philip Gunn, and Lamar’s passed the House committee but died on the calendar before lawmakers delayed their session due to COVID-19

Lamar’s bill would have brought the appointment process for the IHL closer in line to the selection process for another important board in Mississippi, the State Board of Education. Seats on that board are divided between the governor, the lieutenant governor and the speaker. And of the governor’s five appointees, two must work in Mississippi public schools: one as an administrator, the other as a teacher.

There is no such requirement for the IHL board. The only criteria the governor is constitutionally required to consider are the age of a potential appointee and the Supreme Court district they reside in.

For now, the Senate remains the only check on the governor’s power to appoint trustees is the Senate. That check, however, is rarely exercised. The last time the Senate rejected a governor’s pick for the IHL board was in 1996.

Rader graduated from Mississippi State University in 1984 with a degree in petroleum engineering. After working in Houston for several years, he joined Columbus Recycling, a scrap metal company founded by his late father-in-law, as an executive in 1991 and purchased it five years later. Under his leadership, the company broke $100 million in revenue in 2015.

A proud Bulldog, Rader has sought to share that wealth with his alma mater. Through a nonprofit foundation he owns with his wife, Rader has donated more than $2.8 million to MSU’s Foundation, School of Business and various athletic clubs since 2004, according to tax filings. He has also served on the boards of MSU’s foundation and the Bulldog Club.

In addition to selecting donors or allies, governors have traditionally picked appointees who, like Rader, are accomplished in their field and do not work in higher education — the idea being the board will benefit from a diversity of experiences. Among Reeves’ recent appointees: the president of a SWAT vehicle manufacturer, a real estate investor and car salesman, and the founder of a fertilizer company.

Governors have also tended to select passionate alumni of Mississippi schools, said Lynn Evans, who chairs Common Cause Mississippi, a nonprofit that advocates for government accountability and transparency.

“The general rule is that people want to be on the board because they graduated from a college in Mississippi, and they want to see that college get some stuff,” Evans said. “So, prosper, shall we just say. Prosper.”

These connections pose questions about conflicts of interests. IHL has a process for trustees to flag potential conflicts related to their business ties and, if necessary, recuse themselves from voting.

But trustees are not prohibited from using their position to benefit the university they attended or support, Tom Hood, the executive director of the Mississippi Ethics Commission, wrote in an email. While trustees are barred from being employed or, with few exceptions, contracted by the universities, Hood wrote that none of the prohibitions in the state’s ethics law requires trustees “to treat every university the same and none prohibit favoritism among the eight institutions.”

That’s one reason why it can be hard to hold trustees accountable, Evans said. Another is because the board functions in relative secrecy. Its public board meetings are pro forma; the trustees almost always vote in lock-step. The real decisions are made in executive sessions or the weeks between meetings.

“If everyday people look around and see they don’t have a chance to get appointed to the college board and they see that the people who do are a small circle of people with lots of money and influence, then they start thinking, ‘Well my government is not working for me, it’s just working for those people over there,’” Evans said. “And that’s not fair.”

When Reeves’ announced his four picks, Bell and other members of the Legislative Black Caucus were disappointed to see only one Black person on the list: Ormella Cummings, who is the chief strategy officer at North Mississippi Health Services. A University of Mississippi graduate, she is also the only appointee who has not donated to Reeves’ campaign.

Rep. Christoper Bell waits on the third floor of the Capitol building in 2018. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Yet this is a situation that Bell, who went to Jackson State University, knows all too well. Like many alumni of Mississippi’s three public HBCUs, he has watched in frustration over the years as Mississippi’s white governors consistently choose not to appoint people of color to the IHL board.

“It’s imperative that we have a diverse group of individuals who have an opportunity to lead our colleges and universities,” Bell said. “And we don’t have that.”

A review of the 26 trustees nominated by Mississippi’s past three governors shows that 20 were white. The other six appointees were Black. And just two are Black graduates of a public HBCU in Mississippi: Bob Owens, a JSU graduate who was appointed by Haley Barbour in 2004, and Steve Cunningham, a Bryant appointee currently serving on the board, also graduated from JSU.

When Owens rolled off the board in 2015, Bryant did not nominate an HBCU graduate to replace him. The Legislative Black Caucus called a press conference to demand Bryant reconsider.

“For the first time in 50 years, these state institutions will not have a voice on the IHL board,” Sen. Kenny Wayne Jones, D-Canton, said at the time.

The HBCUs continue to be underrepresented. Three out of the 12 current trustees are Black; only Cunningham has attended a public HBCU in Mississippi. IHL’s current commissioner, Alfred Rankins, received his bachelors from Alcorn State University.

“We are a part of Mississippi. We pay taxes. We vote. We live here and to exclude one million people we represent is disgraceful,” Sen. David Jordan, D-Greenwood, said when Bryant didn’t pick an HBCU alumnus for the board.

The lack of representation has a direct effecton how the board handles the business of Mississippi’s HBCUs, Bell said. He pointed to what is perhaps the most prominent example: Ayers v. Fordice, the class-action lawsuit settled in 2002, which alleged the IHL board violated the Fourteenth Amendment by not providing adequate funds to Mississippi’s three HBCUs.

The IHL board, per the terms of the settlement agreement, was supposed to raise $35 million for a private endowment for the HBCUs by 2009. Nearly 20 years after the suit was settled, the board has raised just $1 million.

“It has been on the agenda for … years,” Bell said. “They have constantly and consistently ignored that mandate.”

This unequal treatment will continue as long as Mississippi’s white governors continue to appoint white donors and allies to the IHL board, who in turn will advocate for the predominantly white institutions they attended at the expense of the rest of the state, Bell says.

“We have an opportunity with our colleges and universities to set the standard for the rest of the country,” Bell added. “We always talk about how we can be a leader and keep millennials here in the state of Mississippi, but we’re failing them and everybody else by not being open and receptive to different views from our college board.”

Shortly after Reeves was elected governor, William Symmes gave his childhood friend Sean Tindell a call.

Tindell, a former judge and a state agency head appointee of Reeves, is like a brother to Symmes: They’ve known each other since second grade, went to the same high school, and graduated in the same class at University of Southern Mississippi. In 2015, Symmes knocked doors in the Gulfport heat for Tindell. In 2016, they founded a law firm together.

“I told (Tindell) if I was needed in any capacity, I would be willing to serve if I was asked,” Symmes said.

That is how Symmes, who did not attend community college, received an email from Reeves’ office in early May asking if he’d like to serve on the community college board.

The 10-member board is tasked with distributing state and federal funds to the 15 community colleges and providing the schools with “general coordination.” It is regarded as a less powerful appointment than the IHL board. Still, MCCB’s authority to appropriate funds is significant considering the community colleges generate an estimated $277 million in tax revenue and $3.9 billion in state gross domestic product.

Board members, all of whom are appointed by the governor, serve for a period of six-years.

“I’m honored to be part of it,” Symmes said. “There’s no quid pro quo regarding any payback … you have to review a lot of documents, do a lot of things, and you’re not getting paid for it. It’s not a pay back in any manner. Just the governor trying to put good people in positions who will take the time and do the work.”

(MCCB members receive a per-diem compensation of $40 “for each day devoted to the discharge of official board duties” and are reimbursed for expenses, according to its policies and procedures manual.)

Like the IHL, the community college board also lacks diversity: Every member of the board is white.

In an hour-long phone interview, Mississippi Today asked Symmes if he thought the governor should use his power to appoint board members who better represent Mississippi.

“I think it should be based on merits and content of character,” he said. “You should never base anything on race.”

Mississippi Today also asked Symmes if personal connections influence the way a board member might vote.

“Is this gonna be some kind of hit piece?” Symmes replied. “What’s the situation here? Is it an angle of somebody paying in and getting a position — which frankly I don’t view my situation as that.”

“The governor gets to make his choices,” Symmes added later in the interview. “It’s not based on race or sex or anything like that. He looks to put the best people in that will serve the governor as well as the state the best, and I appreciate the opportunity.”

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter at Mississippi Today in partnership with Open Campus.