Another Leader Ousted

U. of Mississippi chancellor has grown enrollment, attracted better prepared students, set records in fund-raising, championed diversity, practiced shared governance and supported athletics revival. But amid disagreement on medical center, he is being forced out.


March 23, 2015
From Facebook page "Reinstate Chancellor Dan Jones"

Is Dan Jones this year's Teresa Sullivan?

On Friday, the state higher education board in Mississippi announced, without detail on why, that it would not renew the contract of Jones, who has been chancellor of the University of Mississippi since 2009. The news surprised Jones as well as faculty and student leaders at the university, where many think he has been highly successful -- on academic issues and finances. The next day, the board issued a new statement on the nonrenewal, which it attributed to Jones failing to make necessary changes in the university medical center, but that statement too lacked detail, and has not calmed the discussion.

And so all weekend, faculty members and students have been circulating articles about the 2012 ouster of Teresa Sullivan as president of the University of Virginia for vaguely stated reasons and against the wishes of faculty and student leaders. Under intense pressure, the Virginia board reversed itself.

And that's why petitions are circulating in Oxford, Miss., and online, why people are changing their Facebook photos to the image at right, why an emergency faculty meeting has been called for Tuesday and why a protest is planned for the campus on Wednesday.

In an interview with Inside Higher Ed on Sunday, Jones said that he would be happy to follow the Sullivan model. "I have said over and over again in the last year or two that I desire to continue as chancellor. This office is a great privilege. There are large opportunities for us in the next few years."

But he also noted that there is a trend (which he took care to call national, and stressed he was not saying necessarily applies to Mississippi) of governance problems in public higher education. "I think there is a trend for boards to be more active and to want to be more involved in operational issues," Jones said.

He acknowledged that some board members disagree with him about some matters related to the university's medical center, but said he questioned why that should be cause for ending his chancellorship.

With his contract due to expire in September, Jones said he realized that there was a chance he would not be renewed. But he said that he was "very surprised" because he thought he had worked through the issues with regard to the medical center and that this one area of disagreement would not be cause to remove him.

In an opinion piece published Sunday night, Robert Khayat, who preceded Jones as chancellor, wrote that he has avoided commenting on university matters since leaving office, but that he felt "morally bound" to speak out now. Khayat wrote that Jones has "provided enlightened, courageous leadership and moved the university, including the University of Mississippi Medical Center, to levels of performance and respect never before reached." Khayat called the decision to remove Jones an "evil deed -- clearly motived by personal and/or political reasons and not on performance."

The Successes

Part of why so many at Mississippi are as surprised as Jones is that the university is generally considered to be headed in the right direction on key issues:

  • Enrollment: Throughout Jones' tenure, enrollment has been edging up, and at the same time, average A.C.T. scores and high school grade point averages have been going up (to record levels for the university). Increasing both enrollment and academic qualifications at the same time, in a state with many problems in elementary and secondary education, is considered by many a key accomplishment.
  • Faculty: Michael Barnett, chair of the Faculty Senate and associate professor of theater arts at the university, said via email that many professors are "very upset" about the decision not to renew Jones and consider the news "a shocking disappointment." Barnett said professors value the chancellor because he has pushed to increase the size of the faculty to reflect the enrollment increases, has provided merit-based raises that have improved the retention of faculty talent and has consistently consulted with professors on key issues. The chancellor "is committed to shared governance, openness and transparency. The result is a campus community characterized by academic freedom and a deep dedication to learning," Barnett said.
  • Fund-raising: The past three years have been the first in the university's history with more than $100 million a year in private giving. One of Jones's key goals has been to broaden the base of major donors. Since the creation in 2010 of a group to honor those making $25,000 in gifts or pledges over five years, the number of eligible members has grown from 29 to more than 300. Jim Barksdale, C.E.O. of Netscape and an alumnus who is the most generous donor in the university's history, with $30 million in gifts, told The Clarion Ledger that the state board has "made an unforgivable decision," and that "the school has never done better." Another prominent alumnus and donor, the author John Grisham, told the newspaper: "Record enrollment, record applications, record fund-raising, a reasonably happy faculty -- and the board decides to fire him? It makes no sense. Dan raised a ton of money, and this will chill big donors."
  • Diversity: Jones commissioned studies on race relations that revealed continued frustrations of black students at the university, which faces scrutiny on race issues because of its segregationist history and the continued reverence of some for Confederate symbols. Jones -- to criticism from some students and alumni -- has pushed to stop using some of those symbols and for more frank discussion of the university's history, including portions of history that are highly unfavorable. Many black leaders in the state have called the actions taken by Jones long overdue.
  • Athletics: While some traditionalists have been upset by the Jones's statements on race and history, many alumni have been thrilled by a revival of athletics at the university. The university has become highly competitive in big-time football and, while it lost, was in the National Collegiate Athletic Association men's basketball tournament this year. Hugh Freeze, the head football coach, said on Twitter: "Dan Jones is a great leader in higher education & gave his heart & soul to #OleMiss -- everyone in our athletics program will miss him."

What About the Medical Center?

On Saturday, amid rising criticism in the state of Jones's nonrenewal, Jim Borsig, the commissioner of higher education, released a statement in which he cited disagreements over the medical center as the primary point of disagreement between Jones and the state board.

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"The concerns centered on financial issues at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, over which the Board of Trustees has the constitutional duty to provide fiduciary oversight, as it does for all public universities. However, we want to make it very clear that the Board has no concerns over the personal integrity or honesty of Dr. Jones or any other employee of UMMC," the statement said. "The board had discussed these and related concerns with Dr. Jones over a lengthy period of time and these matters were not corrected to the satisfaction of the Board of Trustees. The board cannot directly manage an institution or replace employees other than the institutional executive officer; therefore, the only practical remedy available to the board was a change in leadership at the chancellor level."

Jones, in the interview, said that the medical center was indeed an area of disagreement. He disputed the idea that the medical center is facing any particular financial crisis. He said that the center will finish the fiscal year meeting or exceeding budget goals. As a public university medical center in a poor state, the medical center is unlikely to have the finances of a private university center or a public center in state that provides much more money, he said. But the medical center "if benchmarked against similar institutions," is doing well. He noted that a recent review by medical school accreditors, which included a review of the medical center's finances, did not raise any alarms.

In an interview Sunday afternoon, Borsig said he couldn't elaborate on the medical center issues because they involve a personnel decision about Jones and thus are confidential. He said that the board does not want to imply a financial crisis, and that there isn't one. But he said the medical center, with a $1 billion budget that makes up 38 percent of the university's budget, is significant enough that the disagreements were appropriately central to the decision on Jones. He also said that the dispute is more than a difference of opinion but a matter of "getting things done."

A major source of the tension, Jones said (and many local newspaper reports confirmed), was over the process that led to the appointment of LouAnn Heath Woodward as the next vice chancellor for the medical center, a position never previously held by a woman. (She has been in the second-in-command position at the medical center.) The board wanted to do the search itself. Jones insisted on appointing a search committee and making the recommendation to the board for approval or rejection. The board accepted his recommendation, but he said that discussions were "contentious" because the board wanted to run the search process.

Jones, a former vice chancellor of the medical center, noted that he knows the institution well and that the statutes creating the medical center specified that the Mississippi chancellor would make such appointments. "Statute and policy were clear," Jones said. "Institutional executives are the ones who hire, and the board has the right to approve or not."

In an interview Sunday, Belle S. Wheelan, president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, which accredits Mississippi, backed the chancellor's position. "Our preference is that they follow their own rules, whatever they are, but the practice is that the board hires the university C.E.O. and everyone else is hired by the C.E.O.," she said.

Asked if SACS would be concerned by a board not renewing a chancellor for holding his ground on this issue, Wheelan said, "Yes, it would be a concern."

Borsig, who is new in his role, said he did not know about the specifics of the search for the vice chancellor, but stressed that the board always signs off on (and can reject) hires at that level.

Grounds for Changing Leaders

Whatever one's views on the medical center, the board's action raises questions about whether a chancellor who is successful in most areas, but who has a single major point of disagreement with a board, should be ousted. Jones said that he would never say that a board shouldn't act on the basis of one issue if that issue is about integrity. But he noted that the board has acknowledged that this is not the case, so he said it did not make sense to him that he should be forced out amid so many efforts that the campus is united behind.

Borsig said it was appropriate for the board to act based on the medical center. Asked if the board believed Jones had done a good job at Oxford, Borsig said yes.

Jones said he doesn't know why the Mississippi board would act on the basis of the medical center issue, but said that he has been watching as leaders like Sullivan at U.Va. or Bill Powers at the University of Texas at Austin have had to fight to keep their positions. He called both Sullivan and Powers "outstanding leaders." And he noted concern about the recent move by the board of the University of North Carolina System to eliminate a poverty center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill even though the program had strong faculty backing and wasn't using state funds.

While again stressing that he was talking about national trends, not his board, Jones said that "there has been a concern about more political influence in governance of public institutions." He said that public colleges and universities "require public oversight, but the process appears politicized in some states."

Asked if he felt that opposition to his push to minimize Confederate symbols and to talk about race have played a role in his ouster, Jones said that "I don't have any way to know and I have no evidence that any board member has been influenced by any of that."

But he added that "we all see broadly these social issues becoming more and more divisive, and university leaders who have taken more progressive positions than the political climate in their states, well you can see some reaction to that." He cited the U.N.C. poverty center elimination as an example. As to his stances on race at Mississippi, Jones said, "I'm not positing that you are seeing this here. I'm aware that a lot of contact [by critics on that issue] was made with board members."

Delicate Politics

Alex Borst is a sophomore from Madison, Miss., and he is among the organizers of the protest planned for Wednesday. He was spending his Sunday setting up a sign-making party for the rally.

Borst is involved in campus environmental groups and was surprised and pleased that these groups were able to get a meeting with the chancellor, and that the chancellor followed through on their requests on policies to make the campus more sustainable. He said that shortly after word spread Friday afternoon that the chancellor's contract wasn't being renewed, a number of student leaders found themselves together in a coffee shop talking about why they cared about the chancellor. Borst cited the work on the environment. Others cited racial issues. Others noted that Jones strongly condemned a 2013 incident in which some people shouted antigay slurs at a play about antigay violence.

In all these cases, Borst said, Jones could have ignored students altogether or delegated another administrator to say something. But Jones spoke out, and "he's clearly interested in seeing us go further than we have in the past," Borst said.

While these are progressive, courageous stances, Borst said, Jones is "a very moderate person" who "has to work with all kinds of people in the state." And he said that, in Oxford, "nobody really cares" about the board's dissatisfaction with Jones on the medical center.

Borst said that he realized some in the state disagree that racial issues are still problems in the state, and "we don't want to politicize" the Jones nonrenewal by making it about any one issue.

"We want this protest to be about what he's done and why he should stay," Borst said. "We have record enrollment. We have record A.C.T. scores. We're hiring some of the best faculty ever. Our doctoral programs are going through the roof."

At least one longtime professor who asked not to be identified, however, urged some caution about the reaction in Oxford to the decision to oust Jones. This professor said that while Mississippi students and alumni are immensely proud of the institution, plenty of people in the state aren't. "There is a lot of animosity against the university, and there are many people who would be happy if this place were taken down a notch or two," he said. So this could be about much more than Jones alone.

This professor also noted that when people who love the university perceive an advocate for the university to be under attack by a board they don't feel much of a connection to, they naturally rally around that person. The professor, who said that the outpouring of support for Jones is impressive, also said that the chancellor "is certainly more popular after the board got rid of him than before."


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