Hall: College board acted cowardly in Dan Jones matter

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The leadership of the state College Board who made the decision essentially to fire University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones acted in a cowardly manner with their handling of this decision.

They did not publicly announce their decision.

They refused to talk to the media when contacted, though most of them wouldn't even answer phone calls, emails or text messages.

And they waited until 6:40 p.m. on a Friday to even issue a statement acknowledging Jones' contract had not been renewed.

Cowardly, indeed.

I don't know why they acted in this manner, but let me take a stab at it. I bet I'm pretty close to the dead-center of the bullseye.

First, let's be clear about one thing: Jones was not fired because he was doing a bad job as chancellor. In fact, one could argue that he surpassed even former Chancellor Robert Khayat, who many revere as an institution unto himself at the school.

Consider the following achievements under Jones:

Fall enrollment was at its highest point in school history.

  • Freshman high school GPA (3.49) and average ACT scores (24.3) are at an all-time high.
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education ranked the University of Mississippi as the 13th fastest growing public doctoral institution in the nation thanks to a 43.1 percent increase over 10 years.
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education also named the university as the top fundraiser and as having the largest endowment among doctoral institutions.
  • The school's endowment has grown by approximately 50 percent, from roughly $400 million to $600 million, in the past six years.
  • Private gifts to the university have nearly doubled, with the last three years topping $100 million.

No, this has nothing to do with Jones' actual job performance. Jones was fired because he wasn't a yes man, wasn't ready to kowtow to a board who wanted more power and influence over the University of Mississippi Medical Center and — quite frankly — wasn't as charming as Khayat when it came to schmoozing with big money folks.

Granted, part of being a university president is being able to schmooze alumni with big money, but I think we can all agree that Jones had little trouble in the fundraising department. He undoubtedly knows how to schmooze donors and stroke egos. Undoubtedly he just didn't stroke certain egos hard enough.

As for his relationship with the board, shame on them. Our universities don't need leaders who come to Jackson, kiss the rings and then return to campus to carry out the wishes of 12 political appointees. Our universities need leaders who come to Jackson, make their case for what is best for their institution and then abide by the decision of the board. But abiding by the decision does not mean ceasing to fight for change. That's ridiculous.

At the end of the day, I don't think the board would have fired Jones were it not for outside influences pushing so hard. Many people have pointed toward Gov. Phil Bryant as being one of those outside influences, but I don't think so. It is highly unlikely that Bryant actively sought the ouster of Jones, even if the two did have a contentious relationship, as seems to be the case.

No, this smells more like the monied supporters who don't like change and are accustomed to having more influence or getting their way. These are the same people who likely supported Jones being appointed because Khayat himself believed in Jones.

What we have here are a few influential people — a mix of alumni, political appointees and, perhaps, politicians themselves — deciding that their personal preferences are more important than the success of a university and the thousands of faculty, students and alumni it serves.

And this group is in the clear minority, another reason for them to stay hunkered down and in hiding. Look at the people who have stood up and addressed this sad situation.

"In my opinion, they've made an unforgivable decision," said Jim Barksdale, the university's largest donor — $30 million over 15 years.

"It's outrageous that Dan Jones would get sacked. His leadership, coming on the heels of Robert Khayat's leadership, has propelled Ole Miss to heights it has never seen before," Charles Overby, CEO of the Overby Center at Ole Miss, said.

Athletic director Ross Bjork called Jones "the best situational leader I've ever encountered in higher ed … We were aggressive in the right areas, we were sensitive in the right areas … We love Dan Jones. We love his leadership."

Ole Miss football coach Hugh Freeze was reportedly shocked at the news. In a statement, he said, "Chancellor Jones is a great leader in higher education and gave his heart and soul to Ole Miss. He led us to new heights never seen before."

But what did we hear from those who pushed for this decision, those who voted to oust Jones, those whose job it is to inform the public and those who are "leaders" of the college board?

For more than 24 hours, nothing. No explanations. No thanks for Jones' service. No looking to the future. Nothing.

Cowardly, all of them.