Over the last year, students, alumni, faculty and staff at Mississippi’s eight public universities have come to know this routine well: The Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees fires or lets go of a president, often providing little information as to why. Then the board asks the community to participate in hours-long listening sessions to provide feedback on desirable qualities in the next president.
But are the trustees actually listening? If they are, what do they think? That part is often unclear.
At last month’s listening sessions on Jackson State University’s campus, five trustees and the commissioner, Al Rankins, quietly took notes as stakeholders shared their thoughts on the kind of president they’d like to succeed Thomas Hudson, whose two-and-a-half-year tenure ended earlier this year in a mysterious resignation.
Steven Cunningham, the board’s only Jackson State alumnus and the trustee leading the search, occasionally shared his thoughts with the crowd. But the rest of the trustees and the commissioner kept their perspective confined to legal pads or notebooks, which Mississippi Today obtained through a public records request.
The handwritten notes — from all the trustees who attended except Tom Duff, the former IHL board president — provide a glimpse into how trustees are thinking about the key hire at Jackson State, which is not just the largest historically Black university in Mississippi but the largest university in the state’s capital city.
Trustees typically keep thoughts like these hidden behind the closed doors of executive sessions, but Mississippi Today has reprinted the notes, when legible, exactly as they appear in the records.
There were some common themes. Though none of the notes mentioned Hudson outright, nearly all trustees wrote that community members asked for the board to conduct a more thorough background check on Jackson State’s next president — or more generally to follow an unbiased, by-the-book selection process.
“Vetting,” Cunningham wrote. “What are we going to do DIFFERENT?”
It’s still not clear why Hudson left Jackson State, but many in the community believe the university would not be looking for a new president had IHL not cut the search short to hire him. Community members have a similar critique of IHL’s hiring of Hudson’s predecessor, William Bynum Jr., whose tenure ended after he was arrested in a prostitution sting in 2020.
“don’t hire friends,” noted Teresa Hubbard, a trustee and Delta State University alumnus who had just wrapped up the search for the next president there, which resulted in an out-of-state hire.
Hubbard also noted that the community wants a president who will advocate for JSU, writing “don’t run off a strong willed person.”
Many students said they wanted to be more involved in the selection process, Hubbard also noted. IHL has yet to announce a presidential search committee, a panel of stakeholders that confidentially advise the board, for Jackson State.
Other stakeholders want to be more involved in the search too, Cunningham noted.
“Listen to the Alums,” he wrote. “$,$,$.”
“Allow us to sit before you and listen,” wrote Gee Ogletree, a trustee and University of Southern Mississippi alumnus who, like Hubbard, recently finished a presidential search. “Don’t want to be shamed.”
A few trustees took note of the one person who wanted to see Elayne Hayes-Anthony, the temporary acting president, take the top spot permanently. Chip Morgan, a trustee and retired executive vice president of the Delta Council, wrote that trustees would start looking at applications after the job description was posted. It’s not live yet.
Multiple trustees wrote that community members said the university urgently needs more money to fix its ailing infrastructure — and to get its own water system. Hudson’s administration had been lobbying for $17 million in funding for infrastructure repairs, including a new water system, during the legislative session.
“PWI’s have water systems,” Hubbard wrote. Cunningham noted that this was a “priority!!!”
The trustees did not shy away from taking note of the extensive criticism that some community members had for them. Ogletree summarized nearly every point made by Ivory Phillips, a dean emeritus at Jackson State and a former faculty senate president.
Phillips, Ogletree noted, is a “Critic of College Board,” that trustees have “Not Given JSU Best Attention” and many community members believe the “Listening Sessions are a Sham.”
Ogletree also noted another community member who put the blame for the failures of Hudson, Bynum and his predecessor Carolyn Meyers squarely on the board: “3 Presidents Chosen by You Guys.”
Several trustees seemed alarmed by one faculty member who said that she and other professors had experienced bullying from students. “SAFETY e.g. student threats!!!,” Cunningham wrote; “students cheat + admin does nothing,” Hubbard noted.
Cunningham editorialized his notes with emphatic capitalization, underlinings and exclamation points in blue ink. It appears he took great interest in comments made by Dawn McLin, a professor and the current faculty senate president, underlining her name multiple times and writing “CORE VALUES” beside it, a list that included integrity, “accountability” and “stick to policies/ procedures.”
After one instructor teared up talking about how she did not plan to send her kids to Jackson State due to security concerns, Cunningham wrote down the word “Safety.” He drew a square around it. “(Crying),” he noted. “SAFETY,” he wrote again, this time circling it multiple times.
In another note, Cunningham wrote that a community member wanted Jackson State to have an “open door policy” and for the university to “focus on RETENTION as well enrollment.”
“IHL’s roll(sic)?” he wrote underneath it.
Al Rankins, the IHL commissioner whose role it is to manage the eight university presidents, took notes in two columns titled “(Institutional Executive Officer) characteristics” and “issues.”
Under issues, Rankins wrote, among other things: “low morale,” “high presidential turnover,” “administration ignoring complaints,” “need more extensive background checks” and “need to place fence around campus.”
Under characteristics, he wrote, “integrity,” “strong moral compass,” “forward-thinking,” “understand traditions,” “participate in code of ethics training,” “progressive thinker,” “strong advocate for JSU,” “visible,” “transparent,” “visionary,” “structured and have backbone,” “welcoming,” “is home-grown talent,” “servant leader, faith in God” and “loves JSU and its students.”
Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.