ITTA BENA— It appears Mississippi Valley State University is likely to lack a permanent leader for the foreseeable future, even though the College Board has recently named new presidents for two other state universities.
The College Board decided not to renew Donna Oliver’s contract at the Itta Bena institution in October, four years after she was named to head the smallest of Mississippi’s eight public universities.
But while the board moved quickly on openings at Delta State University and the University of Southern Mississippi, it has been slower in replacing Oliver.
“We’re not going to be in a hurry,” trustee Ed Blakeslee said. “We’re going to make sure we get everything worked through. We don’t have a timeline, but it won’t be quick.”
In November, the board named Alfred Rankins Jr., the College Board’s associate commissioner for academic and student affairs, as acting president. The board then voted in a closed meeting Jan. 17 to hire Portia Shields from the Registry, a group that provides interim leaders to universities.
Shields served two years as interim president of Tennessee State ending in December, with a mandate to clean up an administrative mess, solve accreditation problems, and lift enrollment and graduation rates. Those are similar to the problems faced by Valley.
Shields, though, backed out of the job, said Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds.
“She just decided not to come,” Bounds said.
That’s left Rankins in charge at the 2,500-student university. Bounds said the College Board hasn’t changed its mind about a long stretch without a permanent president.
“There are a number of issues at Mississippi Valley that certainly need to be corrected prior to bringing in a new president,” Bounds said.
He said Valley’s administration needs to be strengthened, “primarily issues in the day-to-day operation of the campus.”
The university had been troubled by internal disputes, including a faculty vote of “no confidence” in Oliver, and diverging views among alumni and donors over Oliver’s performance.
The College Board had been looking to Oliver to increase enrollment at Valley. Most Mississippi university presidents are under pressure to recruit more students as a way to increase revenue after a drop in state funding. At Valley, about 85 percent of students have come from 10 Mississippi Delta counties, a region where the population is shrinking.
“The recruitment plan has to be revised,” Bounds said. “What it will look like in the future, I don’t know.”
The university has other challenges as well. It had just more than $500,000 in its endowment when the foundation filed its last tax return in 2011. The state’s other two historically black universities have far more — Alcorn State University at $14.4 million and Jackson State University at $21.6 million. The University of Mississippi has a $462 million endowment.
The president of Valley’s alumni association, Roosevelt Yarbrough of Pattison, said he’s uneasy that the school doesn’t have a permanent leader.
“The university needs some stability,” Yarbrough said. “We need to really get a permanent president in place.”
Yarbrough said the alumni association has set up a task force to recruit more students. He also said that a number of buildings on campus need renovation, and that he thought Valley needs a stronger curriculum.
“We’ve shut down a number of programs, but we haven’t added any,” Yarbrough said. “It’s hard to attract students if you’re subtracting programs but not adding any.
Walter Robinson, chairman of the university’s foundation, declined to comment. Robinson, a Lexington veterinarian, criticized the decision to dismiss Oliver and said he feared the College Board was maneuvering to merge Valley with another university. Gov. Haley Barbour had proposed merging Mississippi’s three historically black universities into one institution, but that notion was strongly opposed by supporters of each school.
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