While Jackson State University officials are quietly working to pull funding for an improved campus water system, students continue to complain of inadequacies.
The historically Black university, situated in the oldest neighborhood in the capital city, has struggled with unreliable water for years — even when there’s not an acute crisis.
Students who live in on-campus dorms are particularly struggling. The aging cast iron and lead lines under the university routinely burst, which can make the water smell foul or turn brown. In the winter, freezing temperatures have left students without heat, because the system relies on running water. They’ve had to buy bottled water, use portable showers and live in hotels.
These conditions make it more difficult for students to focus on the reason they’re at Jackson State — to learn. And, the problems could hurt the university’s bottom line: Enrollment.
Former President Thomas Hudson — before he was placed on administrative leave — had pledged to get clean, safe water at Jackson State. One of his priorities this session was a $17 million request for state funding for campus infrastructure, including the water system. That goal, Hudson had indicated, has the support of the governor and lieutenant governor. Several lawmakers have introduced bills to get the university funding for projects related to its water system.
Before Hudson was placed on leave, the university had declined to comment on its efforts. His temporary replacement, Elayne Hayes-Anthony, has said she will continue to support the university’s legislative priorities. Concrete details from the lawmakers have been hard to come by.
Now, some students say they want to know what exactly the university’s administration has been doing to fix the problems on campus.
“Not knowing only adds suspicion to where it’s actually going,” Amaya Baker, a junior, said of the university’s quest for funds.
Baker says it seems like the problems are never-ending in her dorm. Hot water has returned to showers, however, some residents’ washing machines are broken.
There is one plus side: Baker started at Jackson State in the fall of 2020, while pandemic restrictions were in place. Now, she can at least spend more time with friends.
Jackson State is a public institution supported by the state of Mississippi. Tatyana Ross, a senior, said the university shouldn’t have to beg for state funding.
At the end of the day, administrators can request more money, but that doesn’t mean lawmakers will approve it, Ross said.
“It’s not new: Jackson State started off as a school for Negro teachers,” Ross said. “It feels like the state government continues to attempt and disrupt the education of Black people. I believe that it all shows how oppressed African Americans remain in today’s time.”
Hudson said in a February interview that his administration is working to get funds for the university to build its own campus water supply, new water lines and a “redundant water supply” in case the city’s supply fails again.
The university has declined to discuss the administration’s efforts to get a new water supply.
Alonda Thomas, the university’s communications director, wrote in a February email that JSU did not want to discuss its legislative efforts to get a new water system.
“We’re going to pass at this time,” she wrote. “We’ll wait until the session closes and if the study is approved, we’ll discuss the findings once the study is conducted.”
An opaque funding process
At a town hall last year, Hudson told students the first step to securing funding for a new water system on campus is to get money for a study. It’s a process similar to the one Jackson State undertook to get funding for a stadium feasibility study. A feasibility study looks at a range of factors to determine how possible a construction project is.
The university is already pursuing water-related projects using about $2 million in federal pandemic relief funds that flowed through the Department of Finance and Administration. A spokesperson for the department said the details of those projects aren’t yet finalized.
In a statement, Michael Bolden told Mississippi Today and Open Campus that the funds from DFA will provide an “intermediate solution” for the water issues on campus and “a more comprehensive plan for the entire campus.”
“The initial funds provided will inform the details of a more comprehensive emergency water delivery system during times of low to no water pressure events,” the executive director of campus operations said.
So far this session, four measures seeking funding for Jackson State infrastructure improvements — House Bill 189, House Bill 1353, House Bill 1389 and Senate Bill 2969 — have died in committee.
But, this is typical. In the Mississippi Legislature, stalled proposals seeking appropriations or bond funding are often revived in one large bill toward the end of session.
Sen. Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville, said of his bill (SB 2969) that “it was important to file so it could be of record, but if the bill dies … it’s not like all is lost.”
Simmons’ appropriations bill asked for $8 million “for the purpose of defraying the expenses of repair, renovation and/or upgrades to the university’s water system and related infrastructure.” He said an university official from external affairs said that’s how much the university would need, but he couldn’t say if it would go toward a study or to actual infrastructure improvements.
Simmons said he proposed the bill because he’d heard concerns that the city’s water crisis has led to declining enrollment at JSU.
Students echoed that concern. Alora Arnold, a senior, said she regrets the decision to attend JSU because of the ongoing water issues.
Her full scholarship is what has kept her in Jackson.
“Had that not been the case, I would definitely transfer,” Arnold said.
Rep. Angela Cockerham, I-Magnolia, filed two similar bills that also requested $8 million in appropriations. She did not return multiple calls and texts from Mississippi Today.
Four Mississippi universities have their own water systems, according to the Institutions of Higher Learning, including Alcorn State University, Mississippi Valley State University, Mississippi State University, and the University of Mississippi.
The University of Mississippi Medical Center uses its own water source for about 90% of campus with the remaining coming from the city, according to the Institutions of Higher Learning.
Matthew Adams, a junior, says the water issues on campus have left him feeling alone and dampened his social life.
“When you’re not able to shower because we’re without water or the showers aren’t getting warm, you don’t feel clean and you stink. I truly feel isolated. My dorm only has one working washing machine, so it’s hard to even get clean clothes.”
Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville, was the third lawmaker to file a bill that would have gotten Jackson State money for infrastructure improvements. He noted one reason for the water troubles at Jackson State is that lawmakers have historically underfunded Mississippi’s HBCUs compared to the predominantly white institutions.
“I doubt if it passes simply because they really don’t want to admit that they had made the failures in providing funding for these institutions,” he said earlier in the session before the bill died.
In the meantime, Jackson State is also turning to private funding.
Bolden said the university has a pot of money — called the Jackson State University Gap Emergency Fund — that can supplement on-campus resources meant to help students navigate the problems. Other services he discussed include on-site counseling and the campus’s food pantry that offers bottled water, canned goods and personal hygiene products.
Jaiden Smith, a sophomore, returned home to St. Louis temporarily from Sept.1 to 3 last year during the water crisis. At that point in the crisis, students had gone days without laundry service and water on the upper floors. The university had to set up portable showers.
“I didn’t want to go to class or do fun events on campus because I couldn’t enjoy the basic necessities of a nice shower,” she said.
Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus. Alivia Welch is an inaugural fellow in the HBCU Student Journalism Network, a project of Open Campus.