Gov. Tate Reeves’ nominations for the immensely powerful governing board of Mississippi’s public universities do not include a graduate of the state’s historically Black colleges and universities. 

The 12-member Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees will be left with just one alumnus of an HBCU in Mississippi if the Senate approves Reeves’ nominations. Currently, the board has two. 

Also not represented by Reeves’ picks or on the IHL board is Mississippi University for Women, which recently fended off a surprise Senate bill earlier this legislative session to merge it with Mississippi State University. 

A spokesperson for Reeves’ office did not return inquiries from Mississippi Today about how the governor identified the four nominees and if he considered any candidates who had graduated from an HBCU in Mississippi. 

“I’d like to thank the outgoing IHL board members for their years of distinguished public service and many contributions to our state,” Reeves said in a press release. “I wish them all the best in their future endeavors.” 

Reeves’ nominations will seek to fill vacancies left by four of former Gov. Phil Bryant’s IHL appointees who will roll off the board in May. Those include Dr. Alfred McNair, a gastroenterologist who graduated from Tougaloo College. Dr. Steven Cunningham, a radiologist who attended Jackson State University, will be the board’s sole HBCU alum. 

The nominations are already drawing criticism from some lawmakers in the Senate for not equitably representing the state of Mississippi. And the stakes could be high: Lawmakers this session have proposed measures to close three universities or to study efficiency in the state’s university system. 

“Time and time again, the governor speaks about being a governor for all of Mississippi,” said Senate Minority Leader Derrick Simmons, a Democrat from Greenville and a graduate of Jackson State. “These recent appointments show that he is not holding true to the words that he himself speaks.” 

Reeves’ picks may not face significant pushback as the last time the Senate rejected a governor’s nomination for the IHL board was in 1996. 

Appointments to the IHL board come with significant responsibility and power over Mississippi’s public university system. The trustees oversee eight universities that educate more than 86,000 students and support almost as many jobs, according to an economic impact study

But historically, IHL has not not always used that power to the benefit of all eight institutions. The board was subject to a long-running lawsuit, settled in 2002, that alleged it had violated the 14th Amendment by not providing adequate funds to Mississippi’s three HBCUs. 

And just last fall, the Biden administration calculated the state of Mississippi owes Alcorn State University more than $250 million over the last 30 years alone. As an 1890 land-grant institution, Alcorn State is supposed to receive equitable funds to the state’s other agriculture college, Mississippi State University. 

Reeves is not the first governor to face criticism for largely appointing graduates of the state’s predominantly white institutions. His appointments hew to a pattern set by his predecessors: IHL appointees traditionally do not have higher education experience and are usually accomplished, and well-connected, attorneys, doctors and business owners. 

They are also often campaign donors. Reeves’ four nominations, whose names and biographies were announced in a press release Tuesday, are no exception and include: 

  • Donald Clark, a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and the University of Mississippi School of Law, is an attorney at Butler Snow and the law firm’s former chairman. 
  • The founding partner of Heidelberg, Steinberger, Burrow & Armer, James “Jimmy” Heidelberg previously sat on the Mississippi Oil and Gas Board and attended the same institutions as Clark. 
  • Charles “Charlie” Stephenson serves as the president of the Mississippi State Bulldog Club Board of Directors and graduated from Mississippi State University. 
  • Jerry Griffith, who served on the Mississippi Gaming Commission, attended Delta State University. 

Mississippi Today was able to confirm through a database the news organization created last year that at least two of Reeves’ nominations — Clark, Heidelberg and Stephenson — are campaign donors to the governor. Calls to those three nominees were not returned by press time. 

Griffith told Mississippi Today he was on deadline for some articles and could not speak substantively about his nomination until next week but added that “it’s an honor to be appointed by the governor.”

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