How Bad is it at Jackson State?

One of the biggest and most important HBCUs falls hard in a public way.

One of the biggest and most important HBCUs falls hard in a public way.

When you think back to last summer’s huge question of “what’s going on at Jackson State” and consider why rumors have been circling over the last week about the firing or removal of Carolyn Meyers as JSU president, it all makes sense now.

The school was burning through cash reserves at a clip of nearly $7 million per year, and the school was trying to fire, hire and consequently spend its way out of it. But now it is too late, and while one of the most important historically black colleges on the planet is not on the verge of closure or consolidation, there will be a significant drop in stakeholder confidence in the school maintaining what generations of work have shaped it to do.

Dr. Meyers is not going to survive this.

If sources near and dear to JSU are correct, she will likely retire or be fired before the end of the semester, and will leave Jackson as one of the institution’s greatest presidents, and at the center of one of its most peculiar crises. And her legacy deserves far better than that, given that she reinforced JSU’s positioning as a STEM powerhouse, maintained relatively competitive athletics, grew the campus infrastructure and boosted enrollment.

Mississippi IHL officials said that the bills required to do all of those things cornered most of the money coming in from revenues at Jackson State, which forced the school to go into cash reserves to pay debts. The school has indicated that it hopes to add $10 million to the depleted reserves with the following remedies:

That puts money back into cash reserves, but what about next year’s debts? Or even next months? And if increased revenue from enrollment gains couldn’t help over the last five years, what can?

JSU is too big to fail.

We cannot afford to lose sight of what exactly Jackson State University is to the HBCU landscape. Not only is it a state flagship and one of just three high-research activity institutions within the HBCU sector, it is the blueprint of how civil rights litigation in higher education lives and operates.

In 2015, the university earned access to a $24.3 million endowment for meeting an enrollment goal of 10 percent non-black student composition for three consecutive years.

Jackson State gains control of endowment
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Jackson State University will become the second of Mississippi's three historically black…themississippilink.com

That payout was part of a $500 million federal settlement reached in 2001 between the state and its three public HBCUs, which has since yielded about $400 million in scholarships, new construction, and enhancements for the campus.

JSU was the biggest and brightest sign of how alumni and students use the law to force equity between black and white schools, and its success remains as a model for how HBCUs, when funded appropriately, can flourish in traditional metrics of institutional success, and in innovation.

The Ayers case gave HBCU stakeholders in Maryland had the foundation for their successful lawsuit for discrimination in funding and program duplication.

Fisk University, which successfully brokered a court agreement to sell a priceless art collection to keep its doors open, remains as a internationally-regarded training hub for black STEM professionals, despite facing similar financial stress and uncertainty.

HBCUs nationwide have the potential to rise as schools with increasing industrial relevance and community impact, if they are given the chance to live with tuition revenue and increased support from state and federal resources. Jackson State, along with schools like North Carolina A&T, Florida A&M, Delaware State, Morgan State and others, make the case every day, and every year.

But these kind of episodes, certainly, do not help the cause.

It’s time for stakeholders to watch closely.

It is time for Jackson State alumni to be on alert for what happens next in the state. So far, the Mississippi College Board has said the school cannot spend funds without consulting the state and an independent auditing firm. Plans for a new dorm have been shelved.

But how will this apply to a presidential search? In 2013, Mississippi changed requirements for public presidential searches, and months later, named former IHL executive Alfred Rankins as the permanent president of Alcorn State University without a formal search or campus interviewing process.

Could this same style of leadership transition be in store for Jackson State?

And what about alumni engagement? Who will make the first effort in educating donors and stakeholders about the details of the financial crisis, and explain to them how a financial wildfire burned for so long before being brought to the attention of local and national communities which depend on JSU as an HBCU anchor institution?

Efforts to reach out to Dr. Rankins and former Mississippi Commissioner of Higher Education Hank Bounds, who oversaw Dr. Meyers’ appointment in 2011 until his 2015 departure to serve as president of the University of Nebraska system, were declined.