University of Mississippi Chancellor's Firing Breeds Anger, Questions

More than 2,500 demonstrated in support of Chancellor Dan Jones on Wednesday.
Photographer: Sudu Updhyay/NewsWatch99

A decision not to renew the University of Mississippi chancellor's contract has been meet with high-level vitriol and lingering questions. 

The Mississippi Institute of Higher Learning, the state board that oversees the state university system, voted Friday not to renew Dan Jones’ contract, citing issues at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. The decision has been met with immediate backlash at all levels of university life.

Students and faculty held a rally Wednesday outside the school's oldest building, and police estimated that more than 2,500 people attended.

"The rally was  amazing," said Ann-Marie Herod, a junior who attended. "Being that I am from here, from the Oxford community, I was very surprised and very heart-warmed to see not only people from the university, but people from the community." 

The rally was peaceful, and had a positive tone. That didn't sit well with Matthew Fernandez, a senior who said he wanted more anger and questions directed at the IHL board. 

"It was a student-led effort and a lot of people came together in a very short time frame and put this together, but I do feel like some of the anger and some of the radical potential didn't come together for me," Fernandez said. 

Demonstrators gathered at The Circle, outside the schools main administrative building.
Demonstrators gathered at The Circle, outside the schools main administrative building.
Photographer: Brian Powers

Forty-five members of the school's faculty senate voted Tuesday night in favor of a resolution expressing support for Jones, who recently completed treatment for lymphoma. 

“To remove a chancellor around the issues that have been quoted by the board at this point would leave any rational person with a tremendous amount of questions as to is there some other agenda at work here,” said Charles Ross, an African American studies professor who sits on the faculty senate. “They made this decision and they really don’t have any justification." 

Ross said it was problematic that the board seems not to have a clear set of criteria by which to assess the chancellor. 

At the highest level, the school’s biggest donors are outraged. Former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale, an alumnus who has donated more than $100 million to the state system, called the decision “unforgivable.”  Author John Grisham, another prominent alumnus, said the move was "rotten." Archie Manning, the former NFL player and father to Peyton and Eli, gave a statement, saying, “Let there be no misunderstanding about where we stand: My family and I are big supporters of Chancellor Dan Jones and feel he has done an outstanding job leading our university. The national reputation of Ole Miss has never been better. Our athletic teams are winning at unprecedented levels. Our enrollment is booming and the academic quality of entering freshmen has never been so impressive. In virtually every measurable category we are succeeding.”

Manning said in the statement that he hopes the decision can be reversed.

Now, legislation has been introduced that would dissolve the board and have individual governing bodies for each school in the state. 

The one faction that seems happy with Jones' firing is made up of those who want the school to reinstate traditions that have been phased out in an effort to promote inclusion. From the outside, the changes the university has undergone in the last few years may look small. After all, the school still has academic buildings named after white supremacists. But it no longer has a street called Confederate Drive. Students no longer chant "the South will rise again." Its mascot is no longer Colonel Reb. And Confederate flags no longer fly at football games. Some fear that Jones’s departure could reverse those hard-won changes, some of which—the street name and the chant—happened under Jones.

The Facebook group for the Colonel Reb Foundation, which wants the school to bring back its defunct Confederate mascot, had a long list of celebratory comments on a post about Jones’s firing. Howie Morgan, the foundation’s co-founder,  told the student-run radio station in a statement that Jones “felt that whatever he thought was right and didn’t want to listen to dissenting opinions” and that the IHL may have wanted “more congenial leadership at Ole Miss.”

The board has denied Jones' dismissal was based on anything other than problems at the medical center, though the board's commissioner, Jim Borsig, told the student paper, the Daily Mississippian, that "there's no question of impropriety on the part of Dr. Jones."

On Monday night, under increasing pressure, the board cited contracts and leases totaling more than $350,000 that hadn’t received proper board approval, according to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.

James Keeton, former vice chancellor and dean of health affairs at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, told the student paper that the board's claims were misleading. 

“Could we do better? Yes,” Keeton said. “Did we do wrong? Was there any loss of money? Was there any fraud or stealing? No. There was none of that.”

Barksdale said that was an unacceptable reason for firing Jones, telling the Clarion-Ledger that you “don’t fire the CEO for the reasons they cited.”  Many faculty members agreed.

Board member Alan Perry presented those reasons Monday night, denying speculation that the decision was a response to the changes the university has implemented under Jones, including changing the name of a street from Confederate Drive to Chapel Lane and creating a new position, a vice chancellor for diversity.

“What our decision was not was a right-wing political plot,” Perry said, according to the Clarion-Ledger. "And it's not an effort to roll back some of the social and racial initiatives Jones had implemented," Perry said. "You can take that to the bank."

Jones said that believes the decision doesn’t come as a response to those particular changes, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is satisfied with them.

“The board generally has been supportive of my efforts to make the campus be more inclusive in every way,” Jones said “I have not had any pushback from the board. That being said, I think we all recognize that nationally, the political right is getting more involved in higher education. Certainly here in Mississippi there are people that have been unhappy with some of the changes we’ve made here to be more inclusive based on race, gender and sexual inequality.”

Jones said that he had butted heads with the board in the past, particularly when selecting a new vice chancellor for the medical center. The board wanted to be more involved in the selection process, rather than just need to approve the final candidate. Jones argued that more involvement would violate state statutes, as well as the board’s own policies. In the end, Jones made his own nomination and she was unanimously approved.

Still, some point to Jones’ challenge to the board’s authority as the possible impetus for the decision, and the undoing of progress at the school as the possible consequence.

Claiborne Barksdale, Jim’s brother, graduated from university’s law school and was the longtime leader of its Barksdale Reading Institute. He said he sees the decision as “strictly a power play by certain members of the IHL board to gain control over the University of Mississippi Medical Center.”

At the same time, Barksdale said, the undoing of progress at the school could come as a result if Jones is not reinstated and a new chancellor does not prioritize it the way he has.

“The firing may not have been motivated by a desire to move backwards, but it certainly creates an opening to move backwards,” Barksdale said. “The people who have this ego clash going on, the Alan Perry sector, they have nothing in common with the Colonel Reb sector, but they are playing right into their hands.”

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