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Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant

Mississippi’s governor is meddling in the search for the head of the state’s community college system and risks embarrassing the state, according to current and former higher education officials in and outside Mississippi.

Governor Phil Bryant, a Republican, is urging members of the state’s community college board to drop the requirement that the system’s executive director have a Ph.D and five years of education experience. Instead, Bryant wants the board to change the job requirement and expand its search to include people with workforce training experience.

The stakes are big in Mississippi, which has 250,000 community college students – three times as many as attend the state’s public four-year universities.

The board is scheduled to meet today and members are expected to talk about the search, but it is not yet clear what they will do. They interviewed two candidates in December.

The protests inside the state have become so intense that college presidents took their concerns to their accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Belle Wheelan, the association's president, wrote Mississippi officials a blistering letter warning them the governor’s actions could bring grief to the state and comparing Bryant to a governor who did major damage to the state's higher education system decades ago.

“I believe it would be a serious mistake for Mississippi to allow political interference to impact the selection of its new CEO and to give the impression that the board is willing to bend to political pressure rather than make its own decisions about the qualifications of its leader,” Wheelan wrote in a Jan. 9 letter to the outgoing head of the community college system, Eric Clark, and state university presidents.

She also warned the state it would suffer “adverse publicity” from higher education watchers across the country.

The letter also loosely compares the current episode to the “extremely serious and long-lasting consequences” of meddling by Mississippi Governor Theodore G. Bilbo. His attempts to control the state’s colleges in the 1920s and 1930s caused some of them to temporarily lose their accreditation. The state eventually amended its constitution to create an independent governing board to oversee four-year colleges in an effort to reduce political pressures on higher education.

Knox Graham, a Bryant spokesman, said the governor wanted someone who could lead workforce development efforts.

“While the Mississippi Community College board does get to set the qualifications, Governor Bryant’s only intent was to be more inclusive of all candidates, particularly professionals with workforce and development experience,” Graham said in an email. “Additionally, some of the state’s most successful chancellors and presidents at institutes of higher learning wouldn’t even be eligible for this position under the current qualification standards.”

In a letter to community college board members in November, Bryant said other states allow a community college leader to have non-Ph.D. postgraduate degrees in business or law, or simply senior-level business experience.

The two-year college board is only a coordinating board for the community college system -- each college has its own local governing board -- but people who have been involved take the possibility of politically motivated changes seriously.

Patricia Dickens is the past chairwoman of the Mississippi Community College Board, a post to which she was appointed by former Governor Haley Barbour, a Republican.

She said the head of the system needs an advanced degree. “The only thing that I would object to is if they tried to lower the standards for that position. It is a very important position,” Dickens said.

Ed Perry, a former member of the community college board who spent three decades in the State Legislature, said each of the four directors of the system since it was created in 1986 has had a Ph.D.

“I feel like the qualifications are fair. I don’t think it’s out of place to require the head of the junior college board to have a doctorate,” Perry said.

Perry said board members regularly talk about workforce development, so they are not going to ignore that when picking a candidate. And, he said, if the board wanted to search for someone without a Ph.D., its members could always change their own process.

Ricki Garrett, a former member of the state’s four-year college board and former head of the Mississippi Nurses Association, said that in addition to the letter Bryant wrote to community college board members, he had also been making telephone calls about changing the job requirements.

“I think the governor is very focused on workforce training, which, of course, he should be, and he probably believes that the Ph.D. is not necessary in finding somebody with a background in workforce development,” she said. “The problem is that this individual would be working with and really overseeing presidents who would have a higher degree than he or she would.”

Garrett, who is now a lobbyist, said there is always going to be some political influence, but boards need to be able to do what members feel is in the best interest of the colleges they oversee.

Wheelan’s letter said not only would a system leader without a Ph.D. risk losing the respect of subordinates and peers, but a non-academic could make the whole system look inferior to four-year institutions in the state. That, she warned, would result in “rendering your agency potentially ineffective.”

Her letter is more of a shot across the bow than a warning of a regulatory action. The accreditor can knock governing boards for being subject to political, religious or other undue influence but cannot go after boards that simply coordinate other colleges’ activities.

“I did say that we had no authority over the Mississippi Board for Community Colleges because it is a coordinating board and not a governing board, but that changing the requirements might still cause the state grief,” Wheelan said in an email.

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