Ole Miss is facing turbulent times. Enrollment is down, the football team is less than stellar and the national trend of political polarization has not left us unscathed. Perhaps most importantly, the university sorely lacks strong leadership, encapsulated by the chancellor position. Larry Sparks is our interim chancellor, but the true position has been unfilled since Jeffrey Vitter stepped down in January. He lasted three years. The chancellor before him, Daniel Jones, lasted six.
Rather than debating the merits of individual candidates, we should scrutinize and reform the search process itself.
In the spring, the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees formed a search committee to find a new chancellor. In June, the Campus Search Advisory Committee met for the first time. In early September, the board search committee held listening sessions at The Inn at Ole Miss. Interview rounds are next, with a new chancellor expected to be selected by late October to early November.
Faculty, staff, students and alumni have weighed in on the search process. Despite the diversity of opinions, most agree that strong leadership skills are necessary, as is a unifying vision.
These Ole Miss groups have valid arguments, but we are all missing a broader point.
The Board of Trustees is comprised of 12 intelligent, well-qualified people appointed by Gov. Phil Bryant. They are tasked with unilaterally choosing our next chancellor. This job isn’t easy. Dozens of applicants have tossed their hats into the ring, and it is difficult to think of a more challenging and competitive vacancy to fill. Given this difficulty, why does the board shoulder the entire selection burden? Why don’t staff, students, faculty and alumni have a greater role than limited membership on an advisory committee? Do we have a meaningful say in this decision?
Responsibility is a heavy burden. It is easier to carry when it is shared. Our current system is imbalanced. Too much authority rests with the board, and too little rests with us. Much of the system can remain intact. The brightest among us should continue to advise the board, but we should all have a greater voice. IHL, rather than choosing one chancellor from a pool of dozens, should provide us, the members of the Ole Miss community, with a short slate of candidates to choose from. Their knowledge and experience can guide the preliminary and messy stages of the search process, while our diversity and magnitude guide us to the ultimate decision. They do the introduction and the body, and we take care of the conclusion.
The needs of our university are complex. Some yearn for a return to traditional values and markers, while others are earnestly striving towards the future. Our faculty members want a leader who understands their needs. Our staff members want a leader who will acknowledge and reward their invaluable work. Our students want a leader who is committed to their learning and success. All of these groups have earned a vote simply by being a part of this community. If Ole Miss wants a strong, unifying and dedicated leader, Ole Miss should have the power to find that leader.
Noah McClanahan is a freshman public policy leadership major from Hot Springs, Arkansas.