When the Mississippi Community College Board unanimously selected Kell Smith as executive director earlier this year, it discriminated against a more-educated Black applicant who had worked at the agency longer, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court on Tuesday.
In January, the 10-member board, composed entirely of white people, announced that Smith, a white man, would be the sixth executive director of the agency that oversees state funding for Mississippi’s 15 community colleges. Smith, the agency’s longtime director of communications, was elevated to the position over Shawn Mackey, the deputy executive director for accountability who is Black.
Now Mackey, through his attorney Lisa Ross, is suing MCCB for discrimination and seeking damages for emotional distress. Smith, who is also serving as communications director for MCCB, said the board had no comment on the lawsuit filed in the Southern District of Mississippi.
The lawsuit takes place against MCCB’s 36-year history in which it has never had a Black executive director. There have been just five Black board members of MCCB whose terms did not overlap, according to the lawsuit. MCCB’s counterpart, the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees, hired its first Black commissioner in 2018 when Alfred Rankins was appointed to the role.
The executive director serves as MCCB’s representative to the leadership and oversees the day-to-day functions of the agency. Unlike Mississippi’s eight public universities, the 15 community colleges are independently governed.
According to the lawsuit, Mackey started working at MCCB in 2007 and, in the years since, has served in various “executive leadership positions,” such as the director of career and technical education. With a doctorate degree in higher education administration, Mackey “has supervised every department within the agency, except for the finance division,” the lawsuit says.
“Mackey is well respected by the MCCB staff, community college presidents, elected officials and constituents for his expertise, professionalism, and leadership,” the lawsuit says.
In 2015, Mackey was a finalist for the executive director role when MCCB hired Andrea Mayfield, at the time a president of a community college in Alabama. That search process saw allegations of political inference, according to the Associated Press. It is unclear if Smith also applied for the job that year.
On July 16, 2021, the day that Mayfield resigned her post, the board appointed Smith to serve as interim executive director. Since he started working at MCCB in 2008, Smith had only held one position — director of communications and legislative services, a job that did not require him to supervise employees, according to the lawsuit. Smith’s highest degree is a master’s of public policy and administration, according to his bio on MCCB’s website.
About a week later, Mackey requested a meeting with John Pigott, the board chair, “to discuss his interest in becoming the Executive Director and highlight his qualifications and experience for the job,” the lawsuit says. But Pigott, who was appointed in 2012 by former Gov. Phil Bryant, refused to meet with Mackey, instead asking him to “submit a written strategic vision to him.”
“Mackey was never contacted by Pigott or any other Board members to examine his strategic vision or discuss his being employed as Executive Director,” the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit alleges that when Smith was appointed to the interim role, he met only one of the minimum qualifications of the position — “proficiency in working with federal and state policymakers.”
“This fact was underscored by Smith himself, who announced to the Board and to colleagues on various occasions that he did not have the knowledge or experience necessary to serve as Executive Director,” the lawsuit says.
Mackey informed the board in August 2021 that he wanted to apply for the position and submitted “several letters of support,” but the board chose to keep the position open. Then in January 2022, the lawsuit alleges that board members voted to reduce the minimum qualifications for the position from “an earned doctorate degree from a regionally accredited college or university” to “a master’s degree in any field, and evidence of experience in administration, leadership and engagement at regional, state or national levels.”
The board interviewed Mackey but kept the position open for 18 months, allowing Smith, the lawsuit alleges, “time to shore up his resume to meet the new criterion established by the board.”
MCCB members are gubernatorial appointments. All three of Gov. Tate Reeves’ 2021 selections were campaign donors.
Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.