On Leadership Oversight, Mississippi IHL Toes Dangerous Line of Racism

In 2012, then-Alcorn State University President M. Christopher Brown II received a unanimous four-year contract extension from the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning. The extension followed two years of enrollment growth, academic development, community outreach and brand building at the university which led to Alcorn being named ‘HBCU of the Year’ just months prior to his new contract.

Less than a year later, Dr. Brown was no longer the president. Believed to have been forced to resign by outgoing IHL Commissioner Hank Bounds and the Board of Trustees, he quietly left Lorman among talk of an internal investigation into alleged purchasing and procurement violations.

No charges were filed, no arrests have ever been made, and no public report on findings has ever been issued from the IHL on the allegations. But one of the fast-rising stars in historically black higher education was forced to bear the shame of a public, pseudo-firing.

So it should surprise many in Mississippi and the higher education community that the IHL today issued a statement about its moving forward in the case of Dan Jones, soon-to-be outgoing chancellor of the University of Mississippi. Dr. Jones finds his name also swirled in a controversy involving chronic and habitual violation of board policy on purchasing, procurement processes, and a failure to properly maintain financial records.

But unlike Dr. Brown, Dr. Jones isn’t going quietly, or being forced out. In fact, IHL offered Dr. Jones a two-year extension following public outcry against their plans of non-renewal of his contract in light of the school’s habitual rule breaking.

Two campus leaders with dueling records of immense success, and vastly different degrees of alleged financial wrongdoing. One is forced out, and another is granted a golden parachute into a more formal retirement.

One is black and headed a black school, the other, a white man who leads a white school.

To understand just how grimy higher education politics gets in Mississippi, you must first appreciate the overall shadiness of state business practices. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported last year about how the state not only maintains a wildly inaccurate website tracking public contracts, but that it also awarded an average of $1.6 billion per year in no-bid contracts to vendors over the last four years.

Colleges and universities nationwide are typically the among the largest and most active state agencies engaged in bidding and securing work from state vendors, so its not a surprise that any school would be subject to audit and review over publicly-funded projects and services.

But given the comparison of these two leaders and the vastly different nature of the reaction from the board, its hard to imagine a circumstance where race was a non-factor in the handling of two campus CEOs of campuses with alleged financial inconsistencies. Neither Drs. Brown or Jones are believed to be directly involved in any of these issues, but for one to have the chance to quit his job while the other was unceremoniously forced out, smacks of the kind of ‘Made in Mississippi’ racism and discrimination made famous during Jim Crow and the Civil Rights eras.

Ironically enough, the IHL board asked Dr. Jones for an apology for his handling of finance with the Ole Miss hospital, which he refused to give just before quitting his job. In light of these recent events, the IHL Board of Trustees owes Dr. Brown a public apology for its handling of the internal review and his resulting resignation. Failing to do so would show Mississippi citizens who so badly want the stigma of racism to leave their great state that white men in suits care less about perceptions, only their agendas.

And as long as smoke on a black college campus appears to be more dangerous than a wildfire on a PWI, we all will have to lament the fact that Mississippi is still burning.