Dunagin: Ex politicians covet Ole Miss job

By CHARLES DUNAGIN GUEST COLUMNIST,

Judging from the names  being made public  as candidates for the job, the next chancellor at Ole Miss may be a former politician.

One question is how much politics will be involved in the decision to name the new chancellor.

Y’all Politics, a Republican-leaning political web site, named five possibilities for the position in a recent article.

They are former Republican congressmen Gregg Harper and Chip Pickering, former Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, Jackson businessman and vice president of the new state lottery board  Gerard Gibert and University of Arizona President Dr. Bobby Robbins who earned his MD degree from Ole Miss.

There probably are others under consideration, and I wouldn’t predict who’s likely to be chosen. But these are five who apparently want the job and don’t mind admitting it.

The Institutions of Higher Learning board of trustees, which will make the selection, has a long-standing policy of not disclosing the final applicants until one is selected as the preferred candidate — a bad policy in my opinion.

Better to officially get it out in the open as to who is being considered, at least when it gets down to the top five. The secrecy thing hasn’t produced any better leadership at the state universities than would have been the case with a more open process.

Y’all Politics may be on the mark in writing: “Ole Miss seems to be stuck in a rut.  They’ve run off their last two chief executives under less than optimal circumstances.  The measuring sticks that seem to be the standard for replacement are longtime Ole Miss Chancellor Robert Khayat and current Mississippi State President Mark Keenum.  Keenum at Mississippi State is hitting on all cylinders and has clearly found his stride as he’s able to navigate faculty, donors, students,  even the SEC and development to the point where Ole Miss constituents are openly coveting having a candidate with Keenum’s skill set at the helm, even if it’s their blood rival.”

Keenum, although he didn’t hold elective office like Harper, Musgrove and Pickering, has worked  in politics, having formerly served as chief of staff for the late U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran. He earned his  Ph.D in agricultural economics from Mississippi State where he also earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees.

He is demonstrating, as did Khayat at Ole Miss, that an alumnus can be an effective leader at one’s alma mater, although there are some, probably including faculty members, who would prefer an outside academic.

That didn’t work so well with the previous chancellor, Dr. Jeff Vitter, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see someone selected who has previous ties to Ole Miss and who has proven public relations and fund-raising skills. An ex-politician may fit that description.

This is the first time in modern history that the entire IHL board has been appointed by a single governor, Phil Bryant.

In 1942, the Legislature adopted a constitutional amendment, establishing a 12-member board with trustees serving 12-year-terms, one-third of the terms  expiring every four years. This was purposed among other things to prevent any one governor from controlling the board.

For more than half a century there was always a mix of trustees appointed by different governors.

Then in 2003 there was a successful move to shorten the terms of the trustees to nine years.

Dr. Aubrey Lucas, a former popular former president at two state universities, Delta State and  Southern Mississippi, was quoted in a 2018 newspaper article:

“I think that no one governor should appoint a majority of the members of the Board of Trustees, but the people of the state didn’t agree with me on that. Of course, I’m not sure they really knew what would happen when they shortened those terms,”

I agree with Lucas.

Ironically, Musgrove was governor in 2003 when the change was made.

He is quoted in the same article: “Generally speaking, the people who were promoting a change felt like 12 years was too long. I don’t think that the effort was led by anybody who was thinking about being governor and saying, ‘OK I get to pick all the IHL people.’ That didn’t have anything to do with it,”

Maybe not. But Musgrove’s chances of getting the chancellor’s job might have been better if all the IHL trustees hadn’t been appointed by the current Republican governor.

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