Significant questions surrounding the abrupt pause to Thomas Hudson’s tenure as president of Jackson State University remain one week after the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees placed him on administrative leave with pay.
So far, a spokesperson from the board has declined to answer multiple questions in detail.
Those include context like if Hudson’s contract has been terminated or if it is still in effect, the nature of the personnel issue that led the board to place Hudson on leave (rather than letting him resign or firing him), and if the board has ever before placed a president of the state’s eight public universities on leave.
Jackson State community members have said the silence makes it harder for them to hold the board accountable for its decision-making.
On Thursday, March 2, the IHL board met twice — all trustees attended virtually — and immediately went into executive session to discuss “a Jackson State University personnel matter.” After the final meeting, members of the press and public questioned IHL spokesperson Caron Blanton about how the board could call an open meeting but immediately close it to the public.
“It was an open meeting, you were all here, you could all hear everything except for what was said in executive session,” Blanton said at the time.
The Open Meetings Act permits public bodies like the IHL board to go into executive session for the “transaction of business and discussion of personnel matters relating to the job performance, character, professional competence, or physical or mental health of a person holding a specific position…”
Hours after the meeting adjourned, IHL sent out a press release stating the board put Hudson on leave and selected Elayne Hayes-Anthony, the chair of Jackson State’s journalism department, to serve as temporary acting president. The release expounded on Hayes-Anthony’s credentials and service to the university but did not explain the criteria that trustees had used to appoint her. If Hayes-Anthony ultimately replaces Hudson, it would be the third time the IHL board has passed on a national search to select Jackson State’s president.
The press release ended with a note that the board “will discuss the future leadership of Jackson State at its regular Board meeting later this month.”
No other information about Hudson was provided. The press release did not include the reason the board placed Hudson on leave.
The night of the meeting, a Mississippi Today reporter emailed two questions to Caron Blanton, IHL’s communications director about the board’s authority to place institutional executive officers on leave because it is not outlined in IHL’s policies and bylaws.
Blanton replied the next day, writing in an email that “the Board’s authority to place an institutional executive officer on administrative leave is provided in the Board’s powers and responsibilities outlined in Mississippi Code Section 37-101-15.”
That code section does not specifically mention “administrative leave,” so Mississippi Today sought more information and asked if the board has ever before placed a university president on leave. A search of IHL’s website, which contains press releases dating back to at least 2006, found just one other mention of administrative leave. That occurred in 2008, in a press release about a former commissioner’s “request to voluntary (sic) step aside from his day-to-day duties during the State Auditor’s investigation.”
Blanton did not reply until Wednesday, March 8.
“I am not declining to answer your questions,” Blanton wrote. “I answered your original question. The follow-up questions are a thinly-veiled attempt to gain additional information on the reasons JSU president Thomas Hudson was placed on administrative leave, which is a personnel matter. Since it is a personnel matter, I have no additional information to provide.”
On Wednesday evening, Blanton elaborated after Mississippi Today sent her the question again, along with eight more.
“The Board hires the institutional executive officers,” she wrote. “Any employer can place an employee on administrative leave.”
Blanton did not answer if the board had ever before placed a university president on leave, writing that “it would take a great deal of research to determine this. Please submit a public records request and I will provide you with the estimated cost to provide the records.”
In response to questions about when the IHL board had conducted a background check on Hudson prior to his appointment as president in November 2020, including who conducted the check and how much they were paid, Blanton also directed Mississippi Today to submit a records request.
Blanton offered the same reply to five questions about Hudson’s contract, if he had signed a separation agreement, why he was placed on leave or if the board had ever received complaints or grievances about his conduct.
“It is a personnel issue, so I will not be able to provide additional information,” she wrote.
This lack of transparency from the IHL board is familiar to many community members of Jackson State.
Ivory Phillips is a dean emeritus at Jackson State who fought for equitable funding for the university as the president of the faculty senate in the 1990s. In a recent editorial for the Jackson Advocate, the oldest Black newspaper in Mississippi, Phillips linked the IHL board’s silence on Hudson to other answers that citizens of Jackson are routinely denied about the water system and the roads.
“Frankly, we were not surprised at this turn of events,” he wrote. “It simply shows how many government entities, especially the college board, never plan to be transparent or accountable.”
Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.