It will likely be years before Jackson State University secures enough funding to fix its housing shortage as efforts are underway to seek legislative support in the absence of a deep-welled endowment.
The university is estimated to lack 1,600 beds, according to the new director of campus operations.
Jackson State’s funding needs, which appears to be the largest bond request any university submitted to the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees, totals more than $136 million for water infrastructure improvements, renovation of a dorm that’s been offline for two years, and the construction of a new residence hall, according to budget documents.
Some of that money has already been granted to Jackson State, but it’s unclear how much. Last year, the university got $15 million in legislative funding mainly for repairs and renovations.
The total amount of state support that Jackson State has received in the last 10 years is a little more than $56 million, according to the university.
There are manifold reasons for this gap between Jackson State’s financial need and the amount of money the historically Black university can realistically expect to receive in state funding, according to lawmakers and university officials.
Those include but are not limited to the continuation of historical underfunding, an anti-Jackson bias, the university’s recent presidential turnover and the relative lack of Jackson State alums at the Capitol who can independently advocate for the university outside the system-wide lobbying efforts undertaken by IHL.
“Anything that had the word ‘Jackson’ leading into a request was looked at with askance,” said Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson. “Unfortunately I think the university may have been victimized by association.”
Some feel the university has made clear that its infrastructure needs help are beginning to negatively impact its enrollment. After the Jackson water crisis last fall left students living on campus without air conditioning or functioning bathrooms, the university’s enrollment fell by 1%. JSU’s fall enrollment was 6,906 students, according to IHL.
“It’s all on the Senate, IHL and everybody else,” said Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson.
IHL maintains its four-year funding bond process, which is based on historical state support, helps like-sized universities receive equitable funding. Still, the state’s three largest predominantly white institutions — University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University and the University of Southern Mississippi — come out on top.
As a system, a spokesperson wrote via email, IHL lobbies for all eight institutions each session.
“As the state’s urban research university located in the Capital City, Jackson State has a unique mission and a rich history of academic excellence and community engagement,” wrote Kim Gallaspy, assistant commissioner for government relations at IHL. “The additional state support we have received in the past few sessions is evidence that Legislators recognize the value of the university system, including JSU.”
For HBCUs across the country, underfunding persists on a systemic level, not because of any one university president or government agency, said Andre Perry, a senior fellow at Brookings Metro whose research focuses on race and structural inequality.
“These issues are long standing and durable, and they will require durable movements in response,” Perry said. “It’s not gonna be one piece of legislation or you know, a savior or a football coach that brings funding to Jackson State. It will be a sustained movement because the movement to deny black institutions is such.”
Jackson State’s new executive director of campus operations, Vance Siggers, has a different perspective. He said the university needed to take ownership of projects that were in its control and make sure lawmakers were receiving a clear message about the importance of student housing vis-a-vis a new stadium.
Housing “is the biggest priority,” he said. “Not ‘one of’ — ‘the.’ And that’s not the message that was received (by lawmakers).”
Siggers said he has been working to change that. Last month, he took lawmakers on a tour of the campus facilities. This is done every year, but Siggers said he conducted the largest tour in a decade, inviting faculty and staff.
“There is a new breeze blowing on campus,” he said.
One of the stops included McAllister Whiteside, a female dormitory that has been offline since 2021 due to mechanical, electrical and utility failures and equipment that needs to be repaired. The university is hoping to revamp it into a suite-style apartments with $20 million in state funding, some of which it has already received.
“The way your campus looks is your front porch,” he said. “When you see a house with a neat front porch, you see a house that is welcoming. Nine times out of 10 you say that’s probably a pretty good house to visit. If the yard is out of control and you have weeds and all that time of stuff — I don’t know what the situation is at that house but a lot of times you’d say they need to do some tuning in there.”
Jackson State is also seeking funding to build new dorms on land the university recently acquired from its development foundation, a sale that has been in the works for years. The new housing would significantly reduce the university’s backlog, Siggers said.
But the plan is reminiscent of a failed 2014 plan to build a $47 million dorm complex on campus.
Put on hold by the IHL board after Carolyn Meyers resigned in 2016 amid the university’s plummeting finances, the project is one of several campus upgrades that have been proposed, only to hit some kind of roadblock. The university and some supportive lawmakers considered pursuing a public-private partnership, but that did not materialize.
So what’s different about this time? The leadership, Siggers said.
“(Elayne) Hayes-Anthony is Jackson State,” he said. “She’s done so much for the state of Mississippi. She’s done so much for this nation. And there are a lot of people out there cheering.”
It’s not clear yet if Hayes-Anthony will become the university’s next permanent president. Last month, the only JSU alumnus on the board voted against allowing her to apply for the role.
Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.