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UM Community Takes ‘United We Stand, Divided We Fall’ Stance During Chancellor Listening Sessions

By Anna Grace Usery, Talbert Toole
Editor-in-Chief, Lifestyles Editor

Members of the IHL Board of Trustees and chancellor search committee held multiple listening sessions Thursday for the UM community to express their thoughts regarding the character of Ole Miss’ next chancellor. Photo by Talbert Toole.

The University family had a chance yesterday during listening sessions to discuss the character, background and expertise of the person they want to take the reins as chancellor at the state’s flagship university. Though opinions differed, the community agreed the campus needs a strong leader. 

In front of members of the Mississippi State Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees and chancellor committee search members Ford Dye, Shane Hooper, Chip Morgan, Robyn Tannehill and others, those who had an opinion regarding the next leader were encouraged to voice it. 

President of the Board, Ford Dye, moderated the session. He expressed the board’s importance of receiving feedback from the campus community to ensure they are seeking the most qualified candidate. Recruiting firm Buffkin Baker is spearheading the nationwide search. 

Academic leaders, faculty and staff were invited to express their thoughts in the morning, while students and alumni presented in the afternoon. 

Faculty: Need for academic freedom, a chancellor with background in higher education

Ted Ownby, a professor of southern studies, encouraged the board to listen to the way candidates answered questions regarding academic freedom – an issue he says the entire campus community is especially concerned about.

“If candidates seem noncommittal or are not sure what you mean, that probably means they won’t be good at their jobs and will be unhappy,” he said. 

Others like Laura Sheppardson, associate chair of the mathematics department, fear the board will choose someone who is a non-academic. She stressed the importance of being versed in academic culture and leading an academic team.

“If you can’t find it all in one individual, find someone who knows her strengths and weaknesses and will rely on a team effort,” she said. 

History professor Garrett Felber asked the board to choose someone who can center racial justice and academic justice, as well as be open and communicative. 

“When there is a failure to respond to repeatedly, it has an effect on all us,” he said. 

Others emphasized the importance of national and international research, in concurrence with developing a healthy budget for graduate students to help fuel the university’s research. 

Kristie Willett, chair of BioMolecular Sciences in the pharmacy school, said the university needs someone who can continue the school’s research narrative. The Ole Miss School of Pharmacy is No. 6 in the country in research funding, Willett said, and most of the credit for advances in biology and medicine can be attributed to graduate students.

“Graduate students are workers that accomplish our research mission,” she said. “What I need is someone who understands what it takes to be an R1 institution.”

Jeff Jackson, chair of the department of sociology and anthropology, stressed inclusivity for all.  

“We want to make this a place where (students) feel challenged and also supported,” he said.”

He also said the next chancellor needs to understand the true breadth of what university has to offer in state has a history of being exclusionary.

“Please ask candidates about diversity and inclusivity (as well as) supporting students with international faculty and faculty of color. What concrete plans do they have to put that in place?” he said. 

Professor of journalism, Graham Bodie, said the university needs a bold and attentive leader to listen to those who have been in the area and have experienced life in Mississippi in its entirety.

“She should act without fear of being fired for doing the right thing,” he said of the next chancellor.

Students: An Identity Crisis 

Ingrid Valbuena, a graduate student, advocated that the committee searching to replace Vitter bear witness and understand what the university has been enduring in the past few months, such as Confederate groups protesting and students posing in front of a bullet-riddled Emmett Till sign.

“I don’t want those things to be forgotten,” she said. “I want them to be handled.”

Valbuena said those particular events will continue to happen on the campus if the next chancellor simply “brushes them under the rug.”

However, another university student disagreed with Valbuena.

Grace Harland, an accounting student from Texas, said the university has lost its identity and that the next chancellor needs to make Ole Miss stand for something again.

“Removing names from buildings should not be a part of our new identity,” she said.

Harland said the “political correctness facelifts” are not working in helping restore a lost identity to the university, and even with the contextualization of buildings and statues, enrollment is still down for a second consecutive year.

“The university has been caving to the demands of any group,” she said. “Those groups who protest against certain ideologies or structures simply have to be vocal enough to force the administration’s hands.”

Harland said the next chancellor needs to embrace the heritage of the school, including its past.

“All history has dark parts,” she said. “Acknowledge our history.”

She reinforced her opinion by noting that the Confederate statue that stands in the Lyceum-Circle was erected in the memory of the students who died during the Civil War, not the Confederates.

Hugh Mena, an Ole Miss alumnus, also vocalized criticism of the university’s latest actions.

He said the political correctness has marginalized the university and that it has negatively impacted Mississippi.

Mena said the university needs to shift its attention and focus on academic excellence.

“I say we rebel against the political correctness conformists cultivating regressive victimhood mentalities,” he said.

He said the Ole Miss brand holds too much potential for greatness.

“No more social warriors for accolades for focusing on the past,” Mena said. “No other southern universities have had to endure this.”

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