In his first press conference as Jackson State University’s 13th president, Marcus Thompson pledged to improve “customer care,” accountability and financial sustainability at the historically Black university, all with students as his administration’s north star. 

Leading Jackson State, Thompson added, is an “awesome responsibility,” one he thanked the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees for placing on him. He told reporters and roughly 40 attendees, including faculty, staff and administrators, that he’s spent much of his first four days as president getting to know students and the campus. 

“I look forward to enhancing (the) experience for the next generation of tigers who will walk these hallowed halls,” Thompson said. “And I’m proud to stand on the shoulders of every president who has come before me.” 

Thompson, a former deputy commissioner at IHL, takes office at a pivotal moment for Jackson State, replacing Temporary Acting President Elayne Hayes-Anthony. 

The largest HBCU in Mississippi is facing declining enrollment, seeking legislative funding for crucial capital improvements to its aging dormitories and water system, and dealing with community concerns about security in the wake of an on-campus shooting that killed a student in October. And earlier this month, faculty took a no-confidence vote in the dean of the College of Education, the second such vote on campus this year. 

“I’m diving in full steam ahead,” Thompson said. “I believe in exercising a shared vision for growing this institution because we all play a pivotal role in shaping how students experience this institution.” 

Dawn McLin, a psychology professor and the faculty senate president, said she was glad to hear Thompson will focus on accountability. 

“We are hopeful he can rebuild the academic enterprise here at Jackson State University,” she said in a statement. “That is a house that’s burning down.” 

This new administration, Thompson and others emphasized, wants to look ahead. The press conference began with Alonda Thomas, the university’s chief communications officer, informing reporters that Thompson would not be able to take questions about “events from past administrations.” 

Still, reporters asked Thompson to address the recent news that two students whom Jackson State police arrested for the on-campus shooting were released after a judge ruled there was not probable cause to hold them. Thompson said it was an ongoing investigation. 

“We’re unable to speak to that matter,” he said. 

Thompson took just seven questions, and no reporter asked about a lawsuit recently filed that alleged IHL discriminated against a female vice president at Jackson State when it hired Thomas Hudson as president in 2020. 

To repair relationships between faculty and administration, Thompson said he is assessing “all areas to make sure we are positioned to take care of our students.” 

“I will not speak to personnel matters, but during my tenure here – this is my fourth today – I’m working to assess leadership and cabinet positions,” he said. 

Next year, Thompson said he will start a president’s tour to get to know guidance counselors, principals and high school students across the state. He also promised to conduct listening sessions with students, faculty and staff. 

“We’re prepared to meet this moment, and I’m ready to help our students become who they were meant to be,” he said. “I hope each of you will support our efforts with your prayers — we need your prayers — and resources to continue to make Jackson State University the global university of our destiny.” 

Much of his last four days, Thompson said, have been spent talking to students, even eating the same food as them. 

“They’ll tell me to eat the chicken wings or eat the oranges, that kind of thing,” he said. 

In response to allegations that the Jackson State University Development Foundation has been using restricted dollars to cover its lack of liquidity, Thompson said he is currently working to help the foundation “move forward.”

“In order for Jackson State to be successful, Jackson State University and the foundation must be successful, must have a united front and be transparent in every way,” he said. 

The foundation is a key source of scholarships for students. 

“What I will assure you is that we will make a concerted effort to always make sure funds are utilized as they’ve been instructed to be utilized,” Thompson said.

Asked to elaborate after the press conference, Thompson did not specify what those efforts are, saying only that he wanted donors to have confidence the foundation is properly spending their dollars. 

As he left the room, Thompson shook hands and hugged attendees and members of the media. 

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter at Mississippi Today in partnership with Open Campus.