Higher Ed Boards Face Leadership Choices

IHL Commissioner Hank Bounds has accepted the job as president of the University of Nebraska system. Eric Clark, executive director of the Mississippi Community College system, has announced he will retire this year. So both the IHL Board of Trustees and the Mississippi Community College Board (MCCB) find themselves seeking new leaders.

The IHL Board of Trustees is a “governing” board. As such it has complete authority over Mississippi’s eight public universities. For years the board allowed university presidents to operate with little oversight and only had an executive secretary to coordinate system activities. Over the past two decades, the board has moved to implement a strong commissioner system. Bounds was the first commissioner given significant say so over university presidents, an often bumpy transition.

The MCCB is a “coordinating” board. It has limited authority over community colleges, each of which as its own local governing board. The local boards hire the presidents. The principal role of the MCCB is to distribute state money. The MCCB also oversees the state’s post secondary vocational programs and workforce training activities. Clark’s hiring was a move away from a traditional educator/manager to a more politically attuned operator.

In past times when both university and community college presidents served long tenures, they held significant clout with the legislature. While some university presidents still have clout for their individual institutions, their power as a group has waned. For years community college presidents were admired or hated for their exceptional clout. Now that is waning. Both Bounds and Clark were hired, in part, because of their relationships in the legislature and the hope they could bring home the bacon.

It will be interesting to see what both these boards do now.

Will the IHL board ratchet up the commissioner role to a chancellor over all universities or maintain the strong manager role Bounds played? There are no apparent emperors-in-waiting to become chancellor. If the board chooses the status quo it could bring Mississippi University for Women president Jim Borsig back. He served as a deputy commissioner under Bounds, has excellent managerial skills, and is a calm, effective leader.

The MCCB held a low-key search to replace Clark and ended up with two educator/manager finalists. Then, Gov. Phil Bryant pushed to open the process to individuals with workforce development and business experience without a Ph.D. That prompted a strong letter from the SACS Commission on Colleges protesting political interference. Last Friday the MCCB deadlocked a second time on next steps. Will it heed the governor and consider someone like Jay Moon, president of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association and chairman of the State Workforce Investment Board? Or will it stick with one of the two educator/managers from its first search?

Board choices will impact higher education for years to come.

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