Did Jackson State Hack Its Own Presidential Search?

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They had Roslyn Clark Artis, wanted James Minor, and now have William Bynum as the incoming president of Jackson State University. Leaks from IHL board members helped them in their effort to redirect the search away from who they were going to get to a native son of the campus, but those efforts have taught JSU alumni, students and faculty the first and most important lesson of HBCU administration.

No matter how wrong it may be, or how right you think you are, the board will never be wrong. Ever. 

This is going to be a tough lesson for the stakeholders of Mississippi’s flagship historically black college to digest, even in suing the Mississippi Institutes of Higher Learning for alleged mistreatment of the school and by publicly dragging Bynum, a candidate who couldn’t make it through the first round of interviews from the on-campus search advisory committee.

It seems faculty, staff and students could have saved themselves a lot of misery and negative press by studying IHL and its recent record on presidential hiring and firing. In Dr. Bynum, Jackson State stakeholders have every reason to be concerned that he will do exactly what the IHL board and state legislators will tell him to do with Mississippi’s higher education crown jewel, even those things which may not be in the best interest of the campus.

Jackson State is actively working to rebound from a crisis in cash flow, and could be subject to realignment, cuts and audits from Bynum.  There is no reason to believe that he will challenge any legislative effort to marginalize Jackson State, or to alert campus stakeholders of those efforts.

He is a trusted entity within the Mississippi higher ed system, placed there by the same board which four years ago forced former Alcorn State University President M. Christopher Brown II into a controversial and unsubstantiated resignation, and without a search replaced him with system executive Alfred Rankins.

The conspiracy theorist in some of us could very easily argue that Bynum’s appointment at Valley was the JV tryout for eventual placement at Jackson State, just as it was for Rankins at Alcorn, after he served as MVSU interim president for a year.

Everything that could be said about Bynum against his appointment at JSU could have been made in favor of Artis, who at Florida Memorial University raised money, increased enrollment and helped the school to attract national attention in the early days of HBCU executive engagement with the Trump White House.

Instead, JSU supporters hacked the search and leaked misinformation about her time as a provost which preceded her presidential appointment in Miami. Before the leak, her candidacy represented experience in legislative lobbying, working with diverse student and faculty communities, and pairing areas of academic strength with local industry and economy. She was an outsider who has kept a campus from the brink, and could have been engaged to keep the JSU campus on alert about IHL plans for slowing down it’s capacity for growth.

Now there is Bynum, who appeared to struggle in handling questions from concerned JSU alumni about how he would handle a board and legislature predominantly made up of middle-aged white guys with money and the power to fire him.

We need to be clear about what is at stake here. JSU is one of just three historically black high research institutions and is among the nation’s largest and most reputable HBCU training hubs for talent in STEM, education and social sciences. It has the potential to be a force in mid-major athletics with the right funding and leadership culture. JSU can be a flagship institution for the region, and potentially for the south.

But because Jackson State stakeholders were too quick, too urgent and too messy with their maneuvering, they now have Valley’s president and an IHL board chair who says this about their failed moves.

The Board, while it is entrusted with the duty of making the selection, makes extensive efforts to secure input from all of the many constituencies of the university – including alumni, students, faculty, staff, community, donors, and taxpayers. However, while the Board seeks advice and information from the aforementioned, the Board does not allow any person, persons, or group to dictate which candidate will be finally selected by the Board. To the extent that some of the members of the Jackson State University (JSU) advisory committee believe that they are entitled to direct the Board as to which candidate would be selected as the Preferred Candidate, they are mistaken.

JSU alumni, students and faculty were only looking out for the best interests of the school, and should be applauded for being so active and attentive. Theirs is a model campus of stakeholder engagement and influence, but it is also a case study on what happens when influence is unaccompanied by strategy and patience.

We can only hope that their power can be redirected to fix what appears to have been an error in judgment, without the hefty cost of JSU’s viability or potential as a necessary casualty for their trouble.

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