Members of committees affiliated with Jackson State University are worried that the university will cut programs in a curriculum reorganization. Associates of the Hinds Chapter of the Jackson State University National Alumni Association Political Action Committee and the Mississippi Coalition of Black Higher Education voiced their concerns at a July 15 press conference at the office of Jackson attorney and Ward 2 Councilman Chokwe Lumumba.
The group released a position paper outlining various concerns about the streamlining effort, some questioning the political motivation of the endeavor, the funding of such a venture and its impact upon the university's viability as a stand-alone school.
Members of the group voiced concerns that an out-of-state consulting company, the Barthwell Group, may be looking to slice programs offered by the university, and that President Ronald Mason Jr. is ignoring input from university faculty and staff on the matter.
"(The Barthwell Group) are not people who have a lot of experience as professional educators. We're just talking about a management kind of group. But if you need to talk about best practices in education then the educators ought to be the ones making the decisions about the viability and success of a program and how they need to be improved," said Ivory Phillips, former dean of JSU's School of Education. "I can't imagine a medical doctor calling in a consultant group who are not experts in the field of medicine."
Faculty say the university is undergoing a strategic planning effort that could spell cuts to some of the university's more under-utilized programs, and point out that the steering committee driving the effort contains very few educators.
"The committee who accepted the program, none of the faculty have been elected for that committee," said Jackson State University faculty member Mohammad Reza Khadivi. "That's not the usual process. Usually faculty feedback is very crucial."
"There are 14 members in the steering committee that's driving all of this business. Can you guess how many faculty members are on it? I think there's one. It's that kind of disregard that upsets us. You'd think the experts would be the one driving this," Philips added.
Mason, reached later that day, said the process has been "fully transparent."
"We're doing program reviews, but the reviews are being done by faculty members. The steering committee is
made up of not just my cabinet, but the president of the national alumni association, the president of the faculty senate, and that's just the steering committee. There are a lot of working groups involved in the process itself," Mason said, adding that the consultant working with the university is also doing work for other schools such as Alcorn State, and is financed with the grant from a local foundation.
"This process had fully engaged the entire university community. What we have is a classic example of change versus resistance to change," Mason said.
"We've had town hall meetings and task forces. None of this is secret. It's all online. Some folks just don't want the facts."
Lumumba, a community activist who filed an amicus brief related to the university's suit against the state in the Ayers case in the 1990s (a case arguing that Mississippi historically black colleges and universities were discriminated against when receiving state funding), said he feared that by cutting courses, the university could be setting itself up as an adjunct for another state university, like Mississippi State University.
"This is not to say that President Mason would do this intentionally, but maybe he might back into it accidentally," Lumumba said. "I'm concerned that there might be plans that there may not be a JSU. There have been plans to merge the university with other universities. Those plans, during the Ayers discussion, weren't so secretly guarded. There were people in courtrooms speaking out loud about that kind of stuff. That's a real problem."
JSU graduate Ineva May-Pittman said reducing the number of courses offered by the university could restrict the potential of students from low-income families who rely upon HBCUs like JSU to complete a specialized education.
"We've had a historical problem with this," Pittman said. "Because of the racist environment perpetrated on the universities, I was not able to soar to the height that I could have, because the opportunity was not there because of limited resources and limited courses.
"Many poor students who come from a poor background, as I did, or who come from a one-parent family who can't afford a more expensive university need Jackson State University, and these cuts could be just as damaging as the racist treatment against me when I was growing up."
Mason admits that the university will be streamlining some of its courses, but doubted the school's cultural heritage would suffer in the process.
"This process is called the regeneration of JSU. What we've said is that we have more university than we have money to operate," Mason said.
"There will be some combination of program loss, program merging and reorganization. We're really not sure what courses will change. That's why we have all these committees working to help us redesign itself. The industry has changed. We're trying to think about the future and be there waiting for it."