Emails sent to the IHL board last year illustrated the deep divisions between Ole Miss and its governing body after the contested removal of former chancellor Dan Jones. Nearly one year later, with a new chancellor in office, everyone is trying to move forward.
A year ago, more than 2,000 people gathered in the Circle. Little had so unified the campus as on March 25, 2015, when the university community rallied in support of then-Chancellor Dan Jones, whose contract renewal had been rejected by the state college board earlier that month.
Jones was a successful chancellor. His accomplishments included leading the University to record enrollment and fundraising and making the campus a more inclusive environment. The public was stunned that what seemed like minor problems at the University Medical Center in Jackson had derailed Jones.
Suspicion and confusion were hand in hand and many questioned the actions of the Institutions of Higher Learning board. Why had they removed Jones with no warning and little explanation? Some accused the IHL of caving to pressure from state politicians; others feared Jones’ replacement would stifle the university’s progress.
In the listening sessions and meetings that began the search for a new chancellor, one phrase was repeated: “trust deficit.” The college board had created an undeniable tension with Mississippi’s flagship, the University of Mississippi.
The Daily Mississippian submitted a Freedom of Information public records request for all emails sent to and from the board from January 2015 to June 2015 concerning Jones. The majority of a review of more than 200 emails showed many people – not just Lafayette County residents – condemned the decision that removed him.
“I must tell you that both as a legislator and a citizen I am very disappointed and angry about the undeserved and otherwise reprehensible manner in which you and the other board members handled the Dan Jones matter,” Bob Evans, representative for Mississippi House District 91 in an area south of Jackson, wrote on April 17. “While I know that you will likely take umbrage with my characterization of your involvement, any explanation you might offer would not be well-received. Your actions speak for themselves. Suffice it to say that I will not retreat from my intention to reign in what I deem to be such execrable abuse of the Board’s authority.”
Alan Branson, father of two recent alumni, said he felt comfortable sending his children to the University of Mississippi “due in large part” to Dan Jones.
“The lack of transparency in the IHL process is disappointing and has all the appearances of decisions made due to matters not necessarily connected with the success/best interest of the U of Mississippi ,” Branson wrote the board on March 21, 2015.
Not everyone wanted Jones to stay. The board received numerous emails that commended the decision to remove Jones.
Bart Wilbanks, an alumnus from Collierville, Tennessee, began a petition in August 2014 calling for Jones’ removal. Wilbanks said the petition was primarily related to the diversity action plan Jones issued that month. By March 20, 2015, the petition had 3,364 signatures.
“I believe there was certainly some division based on the things that Dr. Jones did,” Wilbanks said in a recent interview. “Going back to 2009, when he came on board, ‘From Dixie with Love’ was banned from football games and, while you can respect his motives, the way he did that certainly created a lot of unnecessary tension in the Ole Miss family.”
Wilbanks said he believed much of what Jones did was beneficial for the University. It was what he called the divisive nature of Jones’ tactics he protested. The petition, open to anyone with Internet access, sustained a steady rate of growth, even when Wilbanks stopped promoting it for the entirety of Jones’ lymphoma treatment in late 2014 and early 2015.
“At the end of the day, he is part of the Ole Miss family and we share that bond,” Wilbanks said. “I don’t wish any ill will on him or anybody.”
Others were more adamant about Jones’ removal and applauded the board for not renewing his contract.
Matt Kiefer, president of the senior class of 2014, sent a lengthy email to the board describing what he called Jones’ “regular disappointment and questionable policies (specifically student related policies).”
Kiefer graduated with a bachelor’s degree in public policy in 2014. In his email dated March 25, 2015, Kiefer said of Jones: “His supporters may be loud but they are not representative of the Ole Miss family….His administration has been highly political in its actions and policies, and pushes a liberal agenda on a primarily conservative student body.”
Kiefer’s email offered six examples of problems he said students faced with Jones as a leader, including allowing the parking director to “grossly oversell permits,” “The Mascot,” misconstruing or exaggerating events, being anti-traditional fraternity, and showing favoritism toward certain students in school-related roles.
“Students who describe themselves as Democrats or homosexuals receive special treatment,” Kiefer wrote. “Specifically these groups are severely overrepresented in school organizations.”
Many notes from Wilbanks’ petition reiterated the same thoughts – they wanted Colonel Reb, they wanted “From Dixie With Love” and they wanted Jones gone.
On March 26, just six days after announcing Jones’ contract would not be renewed and the day after the pro-Jones rally, the IHL board hired public relations experts from two outside firms. The board signed a contract with Widmeyer Communications – capped at $15,000 – for help in tracking areas like social media.
On April 2, Margaret Dunning, a public relations professional from the international firm Finn Partners, emailed Commissioner Glenn Boyce.
“You’re going to hear all sorts of accusations in the weeks ahead,” Dunning wrote. She was right.
“Yes, there are many people down here who believe foolishly that the governor and republican (sic) machine were the key players in the shadows,” Boyce replied to Dunning. “I have been in this from the time I arrived nine months ago and I can assure you there were no outside influences at all in the decision. This conspiracy talk is ridiculous.”
An email dated May 5 included a statement from Boyce that said the issues at Ole Miss were prompting constituents to question not only Jones’ removal, but the validity of a single, central board as a governing body for the state’s flagship university.
In the summer of 2015, the board held listening sessions to hear the concerns and needs of students, faculty, staff, alumni and administrators. It was just one in a series of three scheduled listening sessions, but it raised an issue that would resurface each time the board came to Oxford.
“There is a trust deficit here,” Douglass Sullivan-González, dean of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, said at the listening session on July 14. “(The removal of the previous chancellor) deeply hurt us because we don’t understand what happened here.”
Boyce, in attendance at the first session, agreed the trust issue was something the board must address.
“I really believe that a part of any great process is the ability to rebuild trust,” Boyce said after the session. “One of the ways you rebuild trust is, you do two things: You listen wisely and you communicate effectively. You become incredibly transparent.”
On Oct. 29, the board announced Jeffrey Vitter, provost at the University of Kansas, as the new chancellor.
In February, The Daily Mississippian requested interviews with Boyce and IHL President Alan Perry. Though an interview was scheduled, it was later canceled and The DM was told there would be no in-person or phone interviews. The DM was told to send questions to Caron Blanton, director of communications for IHL, and received an email response from Boyce this month.
In his statement, Boyce said tension in transitional periods is not uncommon in higher education and business.
“Throughout the process, as with any search, there were a lot of rumors and misinformation,” Boyce said. “Many were concerned about this becoming a political process, rather than an educational search.”
Boyce said the board has strengthened trust with the UM community through a chancellor search process that included listening sessions, meetings with a search advisory committee that reflected the diversity of the campus, open communication with Interim Chancellor Morris Stocks and digital engagement options. An online poll allowed 1,562 participants to pick the three qualities they believed the new chancellor must have. The top three were leadership or vision, higher education experience and academic credentials.
“While leadership from the top is certainly important, the foundation for greatness resides across and throughout the campus,” Boyce said in the statement. “Great universities remain great, even as leadership changes.”
Vitter officially became the university’s 17th chancellor on Jan. 1. In a recent interview with The Daily Mississippian, Vitter said when he applied to become chancellor, he was aware of the precarious position he was in regarding the relationship of the board and the University, but he believes the current atmosphere is one of trust.
“I think there is a real interest in moving beyond that and also really working to establish a strong trusting relationship especially with the medical center and the IHL, so that those two entities work seamlessly together,” Vitter said. “We’ve already done things that I think have reestablished a really good working relationship with the IHL, especially with the medical center, where I think the primary set of issues had arisen in the past.”
Vitter said the University must embrace the board’s fiduciary responsibilities while continuing to advance.
“There was an unfortunate interchange,” Vitter said concerning the relationship of the board and the university last spring. “I think there was a lot of miscommunication and, frankly, there were a lot of things that couldn’t be put out there in the public record. I think we’re all behind that now. There are very good lines of communication open, and the board is very much committed to helping us move forward.”
When asked if he would continue the diversity plan Jones initiated in 2014, Vitter said he would. Vitter said the plan, though contested by many, contextualizes Mississippi’s racially contentious past while emphasizing the importance of moving forward as an inclusive campus.
“The university has been out front in addressing some of the race issues, partly because the legacy of Mississippi has thrust the university into the spotlight,” Vitter said. “We’re dealing with the legacy of the Confederacy and trying to put our historical buildings, for example, in context so people understand the framework of where we are but also learn from the past so we can go forward as leaders of this country.”
Vitter said engaging students, faculty and other members of the community in the action plan is important to ensure all constituency groups are heard and understood before making decisions.
He referred to the removal of the state flag from campus in October 2015 as an example of “shared governance” between students and leaders. Another proposal under discussion is the possible renaming of certain buildings on campus.
Vitter said some buildings can be renamed without student and faculty senate resolutions.
“Frankly, we have a lot of rehabilitation to do of some buildings, and that will provide in some cases, a new naming opportunity,” Vitter said.
Since his arrival, Vitter has spent time with multiple student groups, organizations, schools and colleges at the university. Associated Student Body President Rod Bridges said this shows Vitter’s dedication to the campus.
“He (Vitter) is slowly stepping into the position, but he’s so excited about it,” Bridges said.
Bridges said he believes time is the key to the university moving forward.
“People are going to have to be patient and wait to see the things that he’s doing,” Bridges said. “To really move forward – both parties, those that feel as though there is a trust deficit with the IHL and those that feel folks at the university did wrong –we’ve got to learn how to bury the hatchet. “
Bridges said he believes the board is trying to reconnect the board and the university. Bridges, who helped arrange an extra listening session with the board in September when more students were on campus, said working with the board afforded him the opportunity to see their dedication to the university.
“Having been a part of it, I can tell they really care about Ole Miss,” Bridges said. “It means something to them. They want to see it succeed as much as we do and as much as the administration now does.”
‘I’m scared to be excited’
Norris “E.J.” Edney III, an alumnus who is project coordinator for Luckyday Programs and a doctoral student in education, said at a listening session in July that a new chancellor must be able to work both with the board and independently in order to continue the momentum from Jones’ time as chancellor.
In a recent interview, Edney said giving Vitter the clean slate he deserves as the new chancellor is difficult. When a university chancellor who is making progressive moves on campus is removed without concrete explanation, it makes it seem as though progress isn’t wanted, according to Edney.
“Absent a reason we can understand about why Jones was moved, people who like what he did here can only assume he was removed, at lease in part, in order to replace him with someone who doesn’t want to make those moves,” Edney said. “Which means we have to consider the moves that he made as undesirable.”
Edney said all he and other stakeholders can do is make assumptions regarding why Jones was removed.
“I think (Vitter) is doing a great job,” Edney said. “He’s hit the ground running. What happens if he keeps running? What was the real reason Dr. Jones was removed? It couldn’t have been lack of progress. The people who care about this university and want to see it to do well just wanted that answer.”
Edney said while he does believe a trust deficit still exists, he believes it is important to differentiate between distrust of the board and distrust of Vitter.
“Trust deficit may not be the best way to describe it now because I think it’s easy to attach that to Dr. Vitter and that’s not fair,” Edney said. “I think he’s doing everything he can to address that trust deficit. It’s more so a fear of being excited by his vision. We were very excited about Dr. Jones’ actualized vision and we want to keep that momentum going. I want to be excited, but I’m scared to be excited.”
“I think (Vitter) is doing a great job,” Edney said. “He’s hit the ground running. What happens if he keeps running?”
– Norris Edney
During the listening sessions, Edney and others said they were afraid the tension between the board and the university might negatively affect perceptions of the university and ward off potential chancellor candidates, but Robert Brown, a UM political science professor and a member of the chancellor’s advisory search committee, said this was not the case. Brown said he was impressed with the quality of the pool of candidates.
“My sense from my experience with that was the folks at the IHL were working very hard in recognition of that concern,” Brown said, referring to trust issues. “I was very pleased with that. I think they recognize that deficit existed.”
Brown said personnel issues like those of last March often incite accusations against the college board which are misplaced. While it is important to question the way the board governs the university, Brown said, it must be done without regard to a single inflamed issue. Brown said the numerous differences in universities in Mississippi complicate the governing process. As the universities in Mississippi change, it is important the institutions that govern those universities evolve as well, he said.
“It’s not a one size fits all formula on how you deal with those different schools. I think it’s reasonable to ask the question, ‘Is this the best model for how to deal with how higher education has evolved in the state?” Brown said. “Not necessarily suggesting that there is anything wrong with the IHL – we need to make sure, like we do with any group, that they are best equipped to handle the needs of the university and the citizens and the state as best they can.”
Sullivan-González, dean of the honors college, said in a recent interview that trust in the college board should be judged by the decisions it makes.
“We all have experiences that hurt and those wounds take time to heal,” Sullivan-González said. “Good decisions have a great way of healing, and it was a good decision to hire Jeff Vitter. So, we move forward.”
Sullivan-González said it is the goal of any administration to improve relationships between stakeholders of a university and that university’s governing body. The IHL board’s need for Vitter to be successful necessitates their trust in him, he said.
“Everyone wants it to be a victory. I can’t imagine better terms to come in on,” Sullivan-González said. “I don’t think he (Vitter) has to take on entrenched stakeholders that are acting out of bad faith. I think everyone – faculty, students, administrators, staff and board – needs him to succeed.”
– Clara Turnage