Credit: University of Southern Mississippi

Faculty and staff have a simple request for members of the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees leading the search for a new president at University of Southern Mississippi – pick a leader who knows how to listen.

“My hope is that the next president would value my voice as it has felt valued these last seven years,” said Anna Jo Berry-Barrett, a dean’s assistant in the College of Arts and Sciences,at the listening session held by the IHL on campus Monday. 

But from the jump, the voices of rank-and-file faculty and staff have been all but excluded from the decision-making process as the commissioner and powerful board members leading the presidential search have stacked an advisory group with politically connected alumni, major donors and high-level administrators. 

A review of the 15-member Search Advisory Constituency (SAC) shows that nine are local lawmakers and members of the university foundation and alumni boards. The constituency has just four faculty members, all of whom have duties at the director-level or higher, and only one is a staff member, the interim vice president for research. 

Members of the constituency for this search were selected by Tom Duff and Gee Ogletree, IHL Board trustees and USM alumni who are leading the search, and Commissioner Alfred Rankins, according to an email from Caron Blanton, IHL’s director of communications. 

“Both Co-Chairs are graduates of USM and active members of the Alumni Association, so they know many members of the Southern Miss Campus Community,” Blanton wrote. “As Commissioner, Dr. Rankins also knows many members of the community.”

It’s unclear to what extent Duff, Ogletree and Rankins sought names or recommendations from USM; Blanton did not say. The university’s communications department referred all questions to IHL. 

At Monday’s listening session, Duff touted the constituency as “very diverse” in terms of different stakeholders on campus. 

“It has faculty members, staff members, alumni,” he said. “It has everybody that is a stakeholder in this university and in its mission within the state.”

IHL convenes an advisory group for every presidential search. Members are primarily responsible for helping the board filter feedback from the listening sessions and in comments on IHL’s website to create a “draft profile” for prospective candidates.

The constituency used to be an actual committee that would meet to discuss prospective candidates and even participate in interviews, but IHL has narrowed the group’s responsibility through policy changes over the years. 

Still, many on campus said they would have appreciated being included in the constituency, even if its responsibilities are nominal. One faculty member told Mississippi Today the lack of representation for university employees seems indicative of IHL’s true intentions – to select a president who represents the board’s political aims, not the interests of people who actually make Mississippi’s third largest university run. 

“To me, that just kind of shows the regard, or lack thereof, that the board has for the faculty,” said Denis Wiesenburg, a professor of marine sciences. “And yet the faculty are the backbone of the university.” 

As the president of USM’s faculty senate, Wiesenburg was elected by professors to represent their interests. But he said no one from IHL reached out to him about participating in the constituency, even though he has served on it before, in 2001, and the faculty senate president is traditionally a member. 

Also left off the panel was the president of the staff council, which is a counterpart to the faculty senate. The council did not respond to Mississippi Today’s request for comment, but at Monday’s listening session, several members said they wanted the next president to represent their needs too. 

“We have alums, we have faculty, we have staff and we have students,” said April Broome, a staff member in the office that oversees student organizations. “That middle word tends to get lost a little bit.” 

The presidential search at USM comes at a fraught time for higher education in Mississippi. In the Legislature, conservatives have taken aim at academic freedom via Senate Bill 2113, the anti-critical race theory bill, and many faculty are worried that tenure is next following recent changes to IHL’s policies. 

In this environment, Wiesenburg said it would be easier for IHL to get buy-in from the faculty, at least, if trustees had involved them in the search process. 

“That’s kind of management 101 for me,” he said.

By the end of the 20th century, faculty participation in presidential searches became “the norm” at colleges across the country, according to research by the American Association of University Professors.

As universities across the country increasingly rely on consulting firms, faculty participation in presidential searches has seemed to wane. Committees with real duties – like sitting in on interviews or voting on candidates – have been replaced with listening sessions or surveys. 

IHL has followed this trend to some extent, but faculty in Mississippi have long questioned whose input the board actually takes into consideration. 

In years past, IHL sought nominations from the universities for the advisory committee. Members would participate in the hiring process, “the entire candidate interview process,” according to IHL’s past press releases. 

But trustees also frequently ignored the committee’s recommendations. This happened most recently in 2019 when trustees chose not to interview some of the committee’s highest-rated applicants for chancellor of the University of Mississippi. Many alumni of Mississippi’s historically Black universities have long felt that IHL ignores their preferred presidential candidates

IHL is aware of this perception. At a board retreat in March, trustees approved a litany of changes to IHL’s search committee policy to better reflect how board members use the advisory group in practice.

Other policy changes from April included new language that the board “may, at its discretion” appoint a group; under the previous language, the commissioner “shall prepare a list of the proposed membership.” Trustees also removed the requirement that diversity be reflected in terms of “race and gender.” 

Another change the board made was to make members of the constituency confidential, even to each other. In late September, trustees recalled this change at a special-called meeting in late September, voting to strike it from the policy. 

USM’s search committee has three Black members, and all are men. 

Of the nine alumni in the constituency, four are members of the USM Foundation, including Chuck Scianna, Joseph Quinlan, Kelsey Rushing and Louie Ehrlich. Two members – Jarvis Wilbert and Alvin Williams – represent the alumni association with a third, Alan Lucas, being a member of the “alumni hall of fame.” Two more alumni are the mayors of Hattiesburg and Gulfport.

READ MORE: IHL board president calls presidential search at USM a ‘sacred’ responsibility 

IHL’s past advisory groups have been more representative of faculty. For the 2006 presidential search, USM’s advisory committee had 25 members, chosen “based on recommendations by university and community constituencies,” according to a press release

The committee included 15 professors, a graduate student, the faculty senate president and the chair of USM’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors. There was just one member of the alumni association, the president-elect.

In 2012, another IHL press release shows the 38-member committee for the search that culminated in Rodney Bennett’s appointment as the tenth USM president had more input from alumni and the university foundation with eight members. But faculty and staff still had a majority with 21 names. 

“The Board is grateful to all of those who volunteered to serve or nominated someone for this important committee,” Robin Robinson, the IHL board member who chaired the 2012 search, was quoted in the press release. 

Duff, in his opening remarks at Monday’s listening session, tried to allay criticism of the search. He said he hoped stakeholders at the listening session would take the trustees’ attendance as a sign of good faith. Stakeholders who could not attend the meeting, he added, were invited to detail the qualities they’d like to see in USM’s next leader in a comment on IHL’s website.

“I hope this will show to each of you just how important this decision is,” he said. “Oftentimes, the IHL is painted through the media or through people are perhaps not caring or not that interested, but I want you to know – and it was told to me by one of the trustees as we walked up this morning – this is a great institution, and we need to make the right choice.” 

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

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