Education

Ole Miss chancellor search controversy origins can be traced back to 2015

The controversy surrounding the decision of the Board of Trustees of state Institutions of Higher Learning to appoint Madison educator Glenn Boyce as the University of Mississippi’s next chancellor arguably had its origins in 2015.

That year the 12-member state college board made the equally controversial decision not to renew the contract of popular Ole Miss Chancellor Dan Jones. The board cited primarily issues with the operations of the University of Mississippi Medical Center for the decision not to renew Jones’ contract. That decision was condemned across the political spectrum — by many Republicans and Democrats and by multiple conservatives and liberals.

There was talk then — especially by influential state Sen. Gray Tollison, R-Oxford — of changing the governance structure of Mississippi’s eight public universities.

In light of the current controversy, Kevin Frye, a Lafayette Democrat who is vying to replace the outgoing Tollison, recently proposed IHL governance changes similar to what Tollison proposed back in 2015 and 2016.

Tollison had proposed the universities having independent boards to oversee issues such as the hiring and firing of key administrators. The semblance of the College Board, which is enshrined in the state Constitution, would remain intact to deal with such issues as divvying up state funds and preventing unnecessary duplication of programs.

In the 2015 session, 38 members of the 52 member Senate signed up as co-sponsors of Tollison’s legislation to at least study the issue.

In the midst of that controversy over the future of the state college board, Boyce emerged as a major player and some would argue as a calming influence in the state’s higher education circles.

In 2015, like this year, the IHL board shortened its official search process to make Boyce that major player by naming him commissioner of higher education.

Boyce stepped down as commissioner about three years later.

But he emerged again when earlier this month the college board again cut short its official 20-step search process to name Boyce, who had not applied for the job and who had been hired as a consultant in the search process, as the Ole Miss chancellor. The decision has spurred protests — preventing a news conference to announce the hire — and has been roundly criticized by many of the faculty at the state’s flagship university.

In 2015, the IHL board originally had named Jim Borsig, the then-president of Mississippi University for Women, as commissioner. But in the midst of the controversy surrounding the decision not to renew Jones’ contract, Borsig opted to return to MUW.

After Borsig’s decision, the board decided to forego its normal 20-step search process and name Boyce, a deputy commissioner. Then IHL board president Aubrey Patterson of Tupelo conceded at the time the board could have decided to pursue a more extensive national search, but said, “I think we would have come to the same conclusion.”

Contacted recently, Patterson’s whose tenure on the Board ended in 2015, said he did not want to comment on the process used by the current board to hire Boyce, whom he said did a good job as commissioner.

But In a letter to the universities after naming Boyce as commissioner in 2015, Patterson wrote, “Our policy allows us to use either a 20-step process that takes several months to complete or, at our discretion, interview candidates that are known to the Board and consider their selection in accordance with an expedited search process. These candidates may be internal candidates from one of the universities or other candidates that the Board believes should be considered. The policy outlines that the interviews of internal candidates should be conducted early in the process and prior to the hiring of a search consultant.”

The search for the next Ole Miss chancellor was well under way when the board opted to name Boyce. Of course, Boyce is replacing Jeffrey Vitter, who was selected chancellor in 2016 under Boyce’s tenure as IHL commissioner. Vitter served in the post until early 2019.

Before coming to IHL as a deputy commissioner in 2014, Boyce was Holmes Community College president — another position he was appointed to under unusual circumstances.

In 2006, Holmes President Starkey Morgan was convicted of embezzling funds from the school. Boyce, a vice president on the school’s Ridgeland campus, was first named as interim president and later installed by the Holmes Board of Trustees as the next president.

He stayed in that post until early 2015 when he accepted the deputy commissioner position at IHL where Hank Bounds was then the commissioner. Bounds left just before the controversy over the Jones non-renewal erupted to become the president of the University of Nebraska system.

Before Boyce accepted a position at Holmes, he was a deputy superintendent in the Rankin County School District.

This column was produced by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics and culture. Bobby Harrison is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.

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