LORMAN — Alcorn State University’s next president must advocate for economic development in rural southwest Mississippi, boost enrollment, raise funds, inspire students to achieve their hopes and dreams, be familiar with the school’s rich history and, above all, stay. 

Preferably for at least five years. 

That was the message students, faculty, staff and alumni delivered to the Institutions of Higher Learning commissioner and five members of the Board of Trustees during listening sessions Monday on Alcorn State’s campus, the first step in the governing board’s search process for a new president at the oldest public historical Black land-grant institution in the U.S.

In the last 10 years, the historic university has seen seven acting and permanent presidents come and go, experiencing, as the school’s director of religious life put it, a “visionary whiplash” that is beginning to erode core qualities of the campus culture, like its homey, familial vibe. 

“When I first got here 10 years ago, Alcorn was like a family, like a big porch,” said C.J. Rhodes. “In the last few years, that cultural-aspect piece has sort of been jeopardized in some way, so we need a person who can come in and ensure that that part is there.” 

IHL fired the university’s former president, Felecia Nave, last year without providing a reason. She had faced criticism for widespread issues like declining enrollment, dozens of employee resignations and “deplorable” conditions in athletic facilities.

The search for Nave’s replacement comes after IHL finished searches for new presidents at Delta State and Jackson State universities. Those previous searches were led by trustees who graduated from those universities. No IHL board trustee is an Alcorn graduate.

But IHL does have Al Rankins, the commissioner of higher education, who is an alumnus and the university’s 19th president. During the listening sessions, he invited several people by name to address the trustees, even shouting out his English professor. 

Several people cited Rankins’ leadership as a model for whoever becomes the university’s next president.  

“Not to toot Dr. Rankins’ horn,” said Andre Young, a 1976 graduate. “When he was here, he took the Alcorn show on the road. As a result we didn’t have an empty dorm bed here.” 

Though Rankins said the listening sessions were intended to help trustees create a candidate profile — and not to identify specific applicants — multiple students said they wanted to see Tracy Cook, the interim president, remain on permanently, garnering chuckles from the audience.

“The student body was given a questionnaire, and it was highly expressed that we would like Dr. Cook as our next president,” said Jordan Buck, the student government association president. 

Amid increased competition for college students in Mississippi, expected to get even tougher once the “enrollment cliff” of a decline in high school graduates hits, a good leader at Alcorn State is more important than ever, speakers shared. The next president will need to recruit nationally for students and boost the university’s positive qualities, several speakers shared. 

But that’s not all. The next president will also need to address the issues facing the aging campus that could dissuade students from attending, such as the deteriorating buildings and dormitories and the impoverished surrounding area. 

The university’s enrollment has fallen from more than 3,200 full-time equivalent students in 2010 to roughly 2,470 in 2022, according to federal data.

“Even if they’re legacy, they aren’t going to put up with mold,” Rhodes said. “They’ll just go down the street to another university in the IHL system.” 

One student who spoke mentioned her dorm’s water is shut off at least once a week. A faculty member in the English department said his students are constantly talking about the conditions in their dorms, which may not be apparent from a tour of the campus. 

“I hope that you can find a president who can walk among us holy folk, who goes from day to day without dryers or without working washing machines or with rooms full of mold,” said Nigel Caesar, a sophomore business major. “I wish for a president who knows about those things, who knows how to talk to the people who can get those things fixed, who won’t forget that those problems exist. And there’s many more. But please, find a president who can help with that.” 

Located in Lorman, an unincorporated community in Jefferson County with just 2,000 residents, Alcorn State is mainly surrounded by forest and farmland. The two closest cities — Natchez and Vicksburg — are each roughly 50 minutes away. 

There are no department stores, and the nearest airport is two hours away, said Wiley Jones, a notable alumni who was the first graduate of the Alcorn School of Business. 

“An unhappy wife is gonna make for an unhappy president,” Jones said. 

Densel Fleming, the alumni association president, said the lack of economic development in the communities surrounding Alcorn State puts the university leadership at a competitive disadvantage. 

Fleming noted that more alumni wanted to speak at the listening sessions but weren’t able to take time off work on an 11-day notice. He had flown in from Charlotte, North Carolina. 

“My question is to you, and it’s rhetorical, is if you as a board of trustees were able to place the most qualified, well-trained, administratively skilled professional for the next president of Alcorn State University, how successful would you expect them to be without your advocacy — direct advocacy — for economic development to the state of Mississippi?” Fleming asked. 

Recurring among speakers was the feeling that Alcorn State had strayed from its heyday. 

Norris Edney II told trustees about how he grew up on Alcorn State’s campus, which had some of the most beautiful cows. He didn’t realize cows elsewhere didn’t grow as big. 

But the university’s dairy is now shuttered, Edney said. It hurts to see.  

One reason for that, Edney suggested, was inequitable funding from the state of Mississippi. As an 1890 land-grant institution, Alcorn State is supposed to receive equitable funds to the state’s other agriculture college, Mississippi State University. 

But it hasn’t. Last year, the Biden administration calculated the state of Mississippi owes Alcorn State more than $250 million in the last 30 years alone. 

“Everything that is in Starkville should be here in Lorman on the same scale,” Edney said. “That is not just my opinion. That is federal law. This community hasn’t been treated fairly. We’re not trying to get reparations. We’re just trying to be treated fairly.” 

Donna Hayden, a community member, got a high-five after she spoke.

“This is God’s country,” she said, “but God’s country needs some updating. God’s country needs someone who can take the 2,000-plus acres and create an oasis.” 

Student engagement at Alcorn State, which counts slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers among its alumni, is low, said Jhada Wade, a student. She said she thought Cook, who speakers said shares his personal phone with students and makes a point to eat in the cafeteria, will be able to do that. 

Earlier that day, Wade said her professor asked her class if they were going to the listening session. 

“And my classmates responded, ‘what is that?’” she said. 

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