The Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees is moving ahead with the search for the next president of Jackson State University without first accounting for what went wrong with Thomas Hudson’s presidency.
Hudson’s resignation earlier this month made him the third straight president to resign from Jackson State, the largest historically Black university in the state and a cornerstone of economic development in Mississippi’s capital city.
So far, the board has not provided any information about the circumstances surrounding Hudson’s resignation, saying only that it does not comment on “personnel matters.” This silence continued at a board meeting on Thursday when trustees said nothing about leadership at Jackson State despite weeks of press releases suggesting they would. Instead, after 20 minutes, the board voted to go into executive session.
Then at 5 p.m., the board sent out a press release announcing it would begin a search for Jackson State’s next president. Steven Cunningham, the only Jackson State alumnus on the board, will chair the search. Listening sessions will be held this spring.
It is unclear if the board made a decision to commence the search during executive session. IHL’s spokesperson, Caron Blanton, did not respond to questions by press time. Cunningham did not respond to a call or text from Mississippi Today.
Now, unanswered questions about the board’s search process are stacking on top of unanswered questions about Hudson’s resignation.
C. Liegh McInnis, a poet, short story writer and retired Jackson State English instructor, said community members are wondering to what extent the board, with its unilateral power to hire and fire presidents, is responsible for the pattern of resignations at the university, or if Hudson’s resignation was a fluke.
“Whatever it is, it needs to be discussed,” he said. “Not only so it can be avoided, but because he (Hudson) was doing right in so many ways. He was a great fundraiser; he was a great face of the institution.”
McInnis said at a minimum, he thought it was important for the community to know if the Faculty Senate’s “no-confidence” vote played a role in Hudson’s resignation since that could affect the next president’s success.
But McInnis added that he does not expect more transparency because he “can’t think of a time that the board has ever made a decision that works in the favor of HBCUs.”
“Name me one roach who likes when the lights are turned on,” he said.
The board gives itself two options when it searches for a new university president, according to IHL policy: an extended search with a consultant or an expedited process in which the trustees interview candidates “that are known to the Board.” The board has latitude to flip-flop between the two types of searches.
The board used the expedited process to select Hudson’s predecessor, William Bynum Jr., prompting outcry from the community and a lawsuit from Black lawmakers. Bynum’s presidency ended in scandal after he was arrested during a prostitution sting in early 2020.
At the end of 2020, the IHL commissioner, Alfred Rankins, acknowledged “there were some issues” with the search for Bynum during listening sessions. But the board still decided to forgo a national search and appoint Hudson.
McInnis said that while many community members were unhappy with the board’s decision to appoint Hudson without a national search, they ultimately accepted the move because Hudson is an alumnus.
He hopes the community will hold the board accountable to publicly discussing leadership at Jackson State and providing more information about why Hudson’s presidency was cut short.
“They think they’ll never have to address it,” he said. “The question becomes, who is going to push them on it?”
Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.