Year after year of insider appointments to Mississippi’s higher-ed governing board, Molly writes, “not only raise ethical questions but are indicative of a system of favoritism that excludes the historically Black colleges and universities.”
She reviewed the 26 trustees nominated by Mississippi’s past three governors to the board of the Institutions of Higher Learning, which governs the state’s eight public universities. Just six were Black. Only two were Black graduates of a public historically Black college in the state, where 38 percent of the population is Black.
Appointments to the university board are some of the most coveted political appointments in Mississippi. One of her sources said it was “almost like a fourth branch of government in our state.” The IHL oversees a higher education system that employs over 27,000 people and educates more than 95,000 students. The board has the final say over contracts worth $250,000 or more and controls personnel decisions ranging from appointing university presidents to approving academic tenure.
Who’s on the board matters, Molly says: “Mississippi’s universities are vital to this state’s future. They can help grow this state’s economy and stop brain drain. The IHL board has enormous influence over that future because they oversee the universities.”
Among the seven appointees Mississippi’s current governor, Tate Reeves, a Republican, has made to the IHL and to the board that governs the state’s community colleges, all but one are campaign donors. Over the past five years, these six appointees and their businesses have contributed at least $155,750 to Reeves’ campaign committees, Molly reports.
State Rep. Chris Bell, a Democrat who attended Jackson State University, told Molly that the practice of appointing donors or allies is one way the political system ensures power stays in the hands of Mississippi’s predominantly white institutions at the expense of its HBCUs.
“It’s an opportunity for the status quo to remain,” Bell said.
One thing that struck Molly in her reporting was the history of the IHL, and the irony of its origin story. The board was created in 1943 to protect the state’s colleges and universities from “the blight of partisan politics,” according to “Making Haste Slowly,” a book by David Sansing that chronicles the history of higher education in Mississippi.
“It was surprising to learn that this political board was supposed to be a check on the governor,” Molly says, “considering how much control he can exercise over it today.”