Jackson State is Burning

People are running from something or someone at Jackson State University, and it is becoming clear to more than just faculty, staff and students. And that’s a scary proposition, because no one should want to run from a school with the political clout, media influence, brand identity and potential for resources that JSU commands in Mississippi. 

Jimmie Gates, a columnist with the Jackson Clarion-Ledger and a JSU alum, last week wrote about how no one is talking about issues at the school, but that its clear to everyone with some stake in Jackson State and proximity to the Capital City that something is very wrong there. 

In the last month, Provost James Renick, Cheryl Shaw, the JSU Cheerleaders’ spirit team coach/adviser, Nedra Brown, associate athletic director for internal operations/senior woman administrator, and Robert Walker, the interim athletic director, have all left. This week head football coach Harold Jackson was fired.

Earlier this week, a story in The Clarion-Ledger reported that JSU cheerleaders chose not to perform at a recent game in support of Shaw, around the same time Brown was terminated. Earlier this year, there was controversy over several members of the popular J-Settes dance troupe being kicked off the team. I’m not saying those incidents are connected. I don’t know why any of the former officials left, but they haven’t been the only ones. There has been constant reshuffling of personnel at JSU under Meyers’ tenure. We know some changes are inevitable, but we keep hearing whispers about problems at the school. No one seems to want to talk publicly about concerns at JSU, but rumors of problems continue to persist.

This week, the same newspaper announced it would no longer cover JSU athletics, because coaches and athletes were not being made available for media access. JSU officials said that media availability of coaches and players is at the discretion of interim head coach Derrick McCall, and that he would continue to serve as the primary spokesperson and media relations contact for the team. 

It’s unusual business for Jackson State, which holds a stellar reputation for acting like exactly what it is – a flagship, public black college. It is one of only two HBCUs classified as a high research activity institution by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. It is one of the nation’s largest HBCUs by way of enrollment, which has increased over each of the last three years. 

As late as last year, there was aggressive talk about JSU building a domed stadium which would be the new home for the JSU Tigers, and a centerpiece for sports and entertainment events in the state. Today, the football team, at large isn’t allowed to talk to the media. 

Many people in and around JSU have used the adage “where there’s smoke there’s fire” to describe the school’s situation. But in my years of covering black colleges, I’ve found that typically where there’s smoke, there politics smoldering to cloud the view of HBCU progress, and to choke the life out of those responsible for it. 

Mississippi is the greatest example of this. In 2012, the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning Board unanimously extended the contract of then-Alcorn State University President M. Christopher Brown II for four years, citing campus expansion, increased enrollment, and higher visibility for the institution. A year later, Dr. Brown was forced out on allegations of financial mismanagement by staff, which two years later have yet to yield criminal charges or institutional sanctions

In March, JSU President Carolyn Meyers also received a four-year extension. Seven months later, it is highly likely that she will get the same call from the IHL which Dr. Brown received, to begin negotiations for her exit as a result of growing inter-campus opposition and negative press. 

Mississippi is a key battleground in the battle for respect and control of public HBCU space and execution. Next to Louisiana, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, it is among the most vulnerable places for any president or alumni base to advance growth of a campus against political will designed to close our institutions. 

And now, that battle has produced smoke that we can see across the country. Anyone care to do more than ask the question of “what’s wrong with JSU?”

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